Friday, January 28, 2011

Train Your Dog Month - Even Trainers Get Training!

This last weekend, I attended the Clicker Expo in Newport Beach. The meeting was inspiring, educational and a treasure trove of information. I feel that any dog trainer worth one’s salt should attend seminars and meetings to keep up with current trends and studies in dog behavior as well as brush up on their skills. Going to conferences like this reminds me of skills I need to refine, provides an opportunity for me to meet others in my field and I am always learning something new that will help me tweak and improve my classes. The speakers at this conference were also excellent and one cannot help but be in awe of their animal training skills and expertise.

What was also rewarding was seeing some of my former clients at the expo with their dogs. The Clicker Expo is unique in that it is open to professionals, people who compete in dog sports, hobbyists and dog owners. It is so nice to see dog owners motivated and excited by positive methods of training and using these methods with their dogs. Some of my clients attended the event to improve their dog training skills and others are engaged in competitive sports such as agility. It was really inspiring to see so many dedicated dog owners.

Since this is National Train Your Dog Month, I thought I would share some observations and pearls of wisdom gleaned from the presentations and workshops I attended that have relevance to the average pet dog owner:

1) Positive Dog Training and Punishment – one of the goals of Train Your Dog Month is to promote positive dog training methods. Positive dog training whether it be clicker training or some form of lure and reward training, involves reinforcing wanted or desired behaviors.

Punishment as the word is commonly used in by the average person (an aversive that is applied in response to an unwanted behavior that is aimed at decreasing that behavior from happening in the future) , is not the “go to” strategy in a positive trainer’s toolbox and if used at all is used in very limited and sharply defined circumstances. Resorting to punitive methods of dog training raises the risk of fallout from such efforts such as anxiety, distrust, increased aggression, fearful behavior that may not have previously existed or cause an animal to simply shut down. From a training point of view, punishment is not an efficient form of training as it is usually applied inconsistently and imprecisely by the average person and does not show the animal an appropriate alternative behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published a very good statement on the risks of using punishment on animals:

During the meeting I saw several videos of how positive training methods were used to train large, wild animals. Many of the people who gave talks during this meeting use clicker training to work with large sea mammals.  There was an amazing video of a clicker-trained Rhinoceros who can sit and lie down on cue to make it easier for veterinarian to work on him. If you don’t need a choke chain, shock collar or prong collar to work with these huge beasts, why would you want to use one for domesticated canine that has coexisted with humans for thousands of years and is much more attuned to our body language and gestures than any other animal?

2) If you don’t like what your dog is doing, what would you like him/her to do instead? - an important element of positive dog training involves teaching the dog to perform an alternative or incompatible behavior to what he/she was doing previously. If we don’t want a dog to do something, it is only fair that we teach the dog an acceptable alternative. Positive dog training involves rewarding the dog when they perform this alternative behavior. Positive reinforcement with the use of rewards whether it be food, play, a walk or chasing a squirrel, increases the likelihood that the desired behavior will be repeated in the future. I dislike using the word “No” because it is often overused and is used in so many contexts that it seems like it is just the dog’s middle name. Often people are unable to say the word without becoming very emotional and agitated and in such cases, the word itself becomes an aversive. More importantly, the word “No” does not show the dog what he/she should do instead. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on you, what do you want instead? Is a sit acceptable? All 4 feet on the ground? Having reactive dogs, I know that teaching my dogs an alternative to barking and lunging is critical to reducing this behavior. In my case, I reward seemingly small but significant behaviors like a head turn or body turn away from the other dog. If my dog sniffs the ground in the presence of another dog, that is rewarded too! If the other dog is too close, I have a pre-rehearsed “get out of Dodge” cue so my dog learns that retreat is a viable option to standing her ground (which is not easy for an Akita to do).

3) Management is a part of dog training – what was a common thread in every lecture I attended was a discussion on the use of management. Some dog owners feel that training should be enough and that management is not part of the equation. However, effective management can prevent bad habits from forming in the first place and prevents the dog from rehearsing undesired behaviors while you are gone. For example, if your dog barks at people passing by, training alone will not help if you allow your dog access to a front window or gate to practice barking while you are away from home. Leashes, fences, pet gates and crates all function to keep your pet safe or if your dog is aggressive, keep others safe. Management should not be seen as a cop out, it is an integral part of responsible dog ownership.

4) Behavior Chains – dogs are very good at making connections and can readily lump together two or more separate behaviors into a single chain or sequence. Sometimes this is intentional on our parts such as teaching a dog to tackle obstacles on an agility course or teaching a dog to retrieve and drop an object. But, sometimes we unintentionally reinforce a sequence of behaviors that we do not want the dog to repeat. For example, when a dog jumps on the couch, we often tell the dog to jump off the couch and then reward the dog for jumping off. Then the dog repeats the behavior and we reward the dog again for jumping off. Pretty soon for some dogs the behavior becomes the following sequence of events, jump on the couch, owner says “off,” dog jumps off the couch, dog gets a treat, dog jumps on the couch again to eventually get a treat. So, before we reward a dog we have to analyze whether we are reinforcing a desired behavior or are we actually reinforcing a sequence of behaviors one or more of which are unwanted? In the couch example, it would be helpful to be proactive and teach the dog an alternate behavior such as lying down in front of the couch on a doggie bed as a separate and distinct piece when the dog is calm and not in couch-jumping mode and reinforcing those times when the dog goes to the doggie bed on his own. Having a break in time between the unwanted behavior and the behavior you are trying to reinforce can also help prevent an unwanted sequence of events from being reinforced.

5) Pay attention to what behavior(s) you are reinforcing – in one of the workshops I attended, I observed people clicking and treating for certain behaviors that were being offered by the dog (the technique is called shaping). On occasion, a dog would offer several behaviors simultaneously and an unrelated behavior was inadvertently reinforced. In one case, a dog was rewarded for putting his head down but he also happened to be scooting his butt when the trainer clicked and rewarded him. While the target behavior was pointing the head down, he repeated the behavior of scooting his butt because he thought that he was also being reinforced for that behavior. Sometimes in my classes when we teach a dog to target or touch the hand, dogs that have been taught to shake may also raise their paw as they touch the open palm with their nose. My dog will sometimes do this and I have to be very careful to ignore the instances where my dog simultaneously raises her paw and touches my hand and only reward the instances where she only targets my hand with her nose so that the raised paw does not become part of the targeting behavior. So, it is important to look everything the dog is offering at that moment to make sure we are not also rewarding an awkward or unwanted “tag-along” behavior. Timing is also something to keep in mind when marking the desired behavior with a click to make sure other behaviors do not sneak in.

These are but a few of the many common themes and observations from the conference. Right now my brain is overloaded with all the information I took in. I am sure that in the coming months, other tidbits will come to mind which will inspire future blogs.

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