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Monday, March 28, 2016

The Name Game: one word to rule them all

"Aipa, come!"

"Aipa, find!"

"Aipa, sit"

"Aipa, leave it"

Which of these cues is most important? The recall could save my dog's life. But then "find" could save a missing person's life! I can drop my dog instantaneously with a down or stay. But there's one cue that trumps them all because it's part of almost everything else that I use to communicate with my dog: her name.

No matter what she is doing - working a search exercise, playing with her best friends, chasing a deer, gnawing a fresh bone, or sleeping - saying her name instantly locks her eyes onto mine, allowing me to then signal whatever it is that I'd like her to do. It was the first human sound that was ever directed at her, and it was the first verbal cue she was ever trained to respond to. No matter what else we have learned together in the past eight years, nothing will ever be as strong as her first cue, her name.

Compliance is easy, once you have attention.

The fact that your dog's first cue will likely become his strongest is not the only reason why The Name Game works so well as a first training exercise. Chances are, you want your dog to make and maintain eye contact when you say his name. This behaviour is so simple, well-defined, and easy to capture that you can actually condition your secondary reinforcer (e.g. clicker, light flash, neutral tactile stimulus, or marker word) while teaching it! This conditioned reinforcer is not a method although you may have heard the somewhat misleading term "clicker trainer" or "clicker method". It is simply a timing tool that allows you to reward your dog slightly after the fact as long as you use the conditioned reinforcer to mark the behaviour when it happened. You can't train your dog to retrieve by feeding while he still has a dumbbell in his mouth, but you can click, then feed, so that he learns to repeat the action of grasping the dumbbell because it has been paired with a sound that's predictive of a reward. If your dog is not deaf, then I strongly recommend beginning with a clicker because it is crisp, consistent, and unique. Because a conditioned reinforcer is helpful or even necessary in so many aspects of training, it is frequently recommended that the association be made prior to beginning training. However, if you use a simple enough behaviour (making eye contact), then there is no reason not to simply condition it while teaching what you want to become your dog's strongest behaviour: her name.

Now that you understand the concepts behind The Name Game and the conditioned reinforcer, you'll need a few supplies:
  • video camera
  • clicker
  • bouncy ball
That's right, no dog. You are going to practise your conditioned reinforcer before you try it on your dog.
  1. Set your camera to start filming yourself.
  2. Drop your ball 10 times, clicking each time it hits the ground.
  3. Review the footage to critique your own timing. Repeat until you reach 80% reliability with your click timing.
  4. Toss your ball upward 10 times, clicking each time you catch it.
  5. Review the footage and repeat until you reach 80% reliability with your click timing.
Now you're ready for your dog! To play The Name Game, you will need
  • dog
  • her breakfast*
  • clicker
*This is easiest if your dog eats some form of kibble. If your dog eats canned food, then you can use a treat tube, such as the aptly name Treat Toob, to dispense licks. If you're a raw or home-cooked feeder, then you might consider puréeing into a Treat Toob, puréeing and freezing into bites, or using bite-sized frozen (e.g. Nature's Variety Instinct raw bites, Primal Pronto, Stella & Chewy's), refrigerated (e.g. FreshPet), freeze-dried (e.g. Stella & Chewy's), or air-dried (e.g. ZiwiPeak, Wellness Core Air-Dried) food for part of your dog's breakfast.

Play The Name Game in as uninteresting an environment as possible, perhaps where you normally feed her:
  1. Wait for her to look at you. Click the instant her eyes meet yours.
  2. Deliver a single kibble within 1 second of the click, but be careful that no motion predictive of food delivery occurs before or during the click.
  3. Once she is reliably making eye contact in order to earn the click/treat, precede her behaviour with a verbal cue: her name. In other words, once the sequence is look-click-treat-look-click-treat with very little pause between the treat and the next look, squeeze the new cue between treat and look so that the sequence becomes look-click-treat-name-look-click-treat-name-look-click-treat.
Now that your dog is reliably looking at you when you call her name while holding her breakfast in the kitchen, you are ready to gradually introduce the 3 D's of dog training: distraction, distance, and duration. Only increase criteria in one category at a time, and in such a small increment that your dog doesn't notice. Practise to at least 80% reliability before taking another small step. This should give you an idea of how gradually you'll want to introduce new distraction criteria alone:
  • Call your dog's name while she is focused on neither you nor anything else (i.e. just bored, doing nothing)
  • Call your dog's name while she is glancing casually at an uninteresting object, such as a watering can
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking more intently at - but not moving toward - an uninteresting object, such as a watering can OR call your dog's name while she is glancing at - but not moving toward - a slightly interesting object, such as a shoe rack
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking at an interesting object, such as a toy. Encourage her to play with the same or a better toy immediately after her click/treat.
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking at, and moving casually toward, a toy. Encourage her to play with the same or a better toy immediately after her click/treat.
  • ...(continue gradually increasing criteria until)...
  • Call your dog when she is glancing casually at another puppy but not straining toward him. Reward with happy play after her click/treat. If this was a setup with a known puppy practising a similar exercise in a safely fenced area, then reward them after their click/treat by cueing them to play with each other off leash!
  • ...(a year or so later)...
  • Call your dog while she is chasing the cat who has strayed into your yard. You won't need to mark the behaviour by clicking anymore, but you do want to continue reinforcing with a spicy variety of unpredictable goodies: immediately take her for a walk, play fetch with her, replace the cat with yourself in a frenzied game of keep-away that will have your neighbours calling your physician, or grab a steak from the freezer.
Last week, my coworker and I diffused a potentially dangerous situation between two large, powerful shelter dogs by having played The Name Game with one of them for four months, averaging one training session per week. He was winning a game of tug-of-war with the other dog's favourite toy, and she was beginning to snarl. Although he was attempting to appease her with flattened ears, body, and tail, he was still having too much fun to let go. They were a good 50 metres/yards away from me when I yelled his name, causing his head to turn toward me even while gripping the toy. With his attention and eyes focused on me despite being in the middle of an intense tugging match with another dog, he immediately responded to my "drop" cue and came tearing across the field to catch the discs that my coworker had run to equip us with because they are his favourite toy.

There is nothing more powerful than putting your dog's undivided attention on cue. Play this game, play it well, and the rest of your training journey together will fall into place.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Walk like a dog

Lily Harenberg, walking like a dog

Loose-leash walking is a wistful dream for many pet owners. Dogs just don't walk like us. They are olfactory; we are visual. We lock our eyes on goodness knows what in the distance and march in a straight line at an even pace. Has anyone ever told you to stop and smell the roses? Well, that was a dog, except that someone changed "urine" to "roses".

Observe or imagine a variety of dogs walking freely along a forested trail. Some might be frolicking through the woods, wrestling each other, jumping over logs, and splashing in streams. A gentle, old soul might be meandering along stiffly, mostly sticking to the paved path. But none of them will be walking at an even pace in a straight line. Their noses will be engaged, moving up, moving down, spinning their bodies around. Motion, stop and sniff, motion, stop and sniff. It's a common theme that underlies a natural dog walk, and one from which we can learn.

Here's how to walk like a dog, with a dog:

  • Give your dog some slack - literally! If there is no one within 20 feet of you, then he can have the whole 4' or 6' leash. Give slack, then ask for it on his end too.
  • Let your dog be your guide, following him at a calm but brisk pace whenever the leash is slack.
  • Be a tree whenever your dog pulls. Don't pull back, don't coo or correct, just do nothing. If you absolutely must prompt your dog, then use rapidly repeated notes, such as "up-pup-pup-pup" or smooches. Click, treat, and move when your dog looks back at you or slackens the leash on his own.
  • When your dog slows and stops with a slack leash, slow and stop with him. As he's exploring the ever-changing smells, do the same with the seasonally-changing sights. Notice something new - do you know what kind of tree your dog is peeing on or when it blooms? Engage with your environment together.
  • Last but not least, notice and reinforce all the nice little things that your dog does. At first, click and treat every single time he looks at you. Click and treat when he reacts appropriately to passing cars, people, other dogs, and cats. Click, treat, and scratch him behind his ears when he chooses to walk beside you for a bit. Eventually, you can incorporate verbal cues, such as playing the name game during walks: use regular treats for automatic check-ins and good behaviour, but keep three or four super exciting tidbits with which to surprise him for responding instantly to his name.
If your dog already thinks that he's training for the Iditarod, then he'll need some baby steps before proceeding to the above, but this post is about the human side of walking with a dog, and how we can offer our dogs - and ourselves! - a more natural way to walk. Stay tuned for tips on how to re-train your dog the basics of pull=stop and slacken=go.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ditch the dish

Twice a day, your dog hears that familiar clang of tiny biscuits cascading into metal. Twice a day, your dog feels the excitement of feeding. Five seconds later, it's all over until the next meal. He spends the rest of the day waiting for you while his wild counterpart would spend hours each day skirting about the edges of a village in search of scraps or traversing vast terrain in pursuit of wild game. Before I adopted my primitive dog, I watched her spend her days stalking and pursuing live prey, both solo and in intricate collaboration with her family members. I saw a couple of her family members lean more toward scavenging, much like the early ancestors of your average household pet. These primitive dogs would observe human patterns and plan their raids strategically to maximise loot while avoiding detection. Aipa is still happiest on training days, when she fully engages her mind and body in hours of searching through the vast wilderness. When I take tea, she daintily laps broth from a bowl, but that is the extent of its use for her.

If you're lucky, domestic life will take its only toll on your dog's psyche, leaving your furniture and leather shoes intact. Many owners aren't that lucky, especially if they have puppies or adolescents. That pent-up mental and physical energy has to go somewhere, and from the canine vantage, your new Persian rug and your great-great-grandmother's antique vanity both look like great places to start. And if your dog doesn't take matters into his own mouth, then he is still likely to suffer from boredom while you're gone, possibly even developing separation distress that's just mild enough to escape your notice. Why not let him scavenge, hunt, and work for his food instead? Seeking behaviour is crucial to a dog's mental and emotional well-being, just as it is to ours. Without leaving the safety of your home, he can engage his mind, all five senses, and even his body for hours on end while you're at work, all with one simple trick: ditch the dish.

Numerous meal-dispensing toys are now available, some of which take about 2 seconds longer to fill with kibble than a traditional dog dish, others of which are perfect vessels for wet food.
  • The Jolly Pets Monster Balls win hands-down in ease of filling as well as purchase price. They won't stand up to a true power chewer, but for something as easy as single-handed squeeze and scoop, they provide considerable duration and quality of enrichment.
  • The Busy Buddy Barnacle's largest of three compartments is easy to fill by squeezing with one hand and scooping in with the other. The inward-facing rubber prongs slow the release of kibble in a way that the KONG Classic doesn't. The two smaller compartments can be filled with kibble as well or quickly stuffed with tantalizing bonuses like larger biscuits or jerky, encouraging chewing. Exterior grooves can be smeared with anything wet: canned food, peanut butter, yoghurt, enzymatic toothpaste, or anything else you don't mind on your floors. This is Aipa's favourite kibble toy!
  • The KONG Genius Mike and Leo can be filled the same way as the Barnacle - squeeze with one hand, scoop or pour in with the other. Adding a couple of larger treats easily ups the challenge, as does combining the two into a new puzzle feeder.
  • The KONG Wobbler can be cleared out within five minutes by a foodie if filled with average-sized dry kibble, but if you happen to feed raw frozen bites, then this is the dispenser for you. It takes my obsessive cat, Lily, up to two hours of full-body wrestling with this slippery opponent to consume a 1/4 cup of Nature's Variety Instinct raw bites. Two of those meals translates to four hours of daily peace for her canine sister!
  • KONG Classics are truly the classic canine enrichment toy, especially if you feed wet food, such as canned, homemade, or a dehydrated mix. They can be filled with moistened kibble or wet food and frozen for a comprehensive sensory experience. To add challenge, mix the moistened kibble with a little wet food, peanut butter, puréed pumpkin, or yoghurt. Another option is to purée the kibble and water, then use a pastry bag to pipe the mixture into a week's worth of KONG's. The downsides are the time involved in filling and the capacity: a KONG that is correctly sized for the individual dog's jaws might only hold half a meal.
  • The Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug is rough on wood floors, human legs, and fine china, but if you're looking for an unscrew-and-fill kibble toy for a genius foodie whom you can't seem to challenge, then get this weird contraption and put the dog where he can't destroy anything by throwing a large, hard plastic object around. This is Lily's favourite kibble toy!
  • Scatter. That's right, no toy involved. Just scatter dry kibble in your dog's crate, anywhere you want him to enjoy spending time, even your whole house and yard. If you feed something other than dry food, and you have a backyard, then scatter across your yard. Neighbours love seeing rabbit entrails being flung from the second storey. Go on, try it, then come back and comment below. In all seriousness, this is an excellent method that requires zero time or money. Take that scoop that you were about to invert over your dog's dish and, since that dish has been ditched, fling it far and wide for your dog to snuffle up.
  • YOU! Pop a portion of his breakfast into a treat bag, and reinforce the nice things your dog does, teach him something new, or keep his existing cues sharp.
How do you use your dog's regular food to spice up his life? Add your thoughts and tips to the comments below!
Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bribery vs. reinforcement

"I want my dog to listen to me, not a cookie."

"I don't want crumbs in my pocket all the time."

"Not every distraction we encounter will be less appealing than food."

"He should do it because he has to, not because he wants a slice of hot dog."

These are just some of the many objections people have to training with food. They all have one feature in common: they refer to bribery-based training, not reinforcement-based learning.

The difference is both simple and subtle. Bribery breeds the attitude that "if I do this for you, then you will pay me a treat" whereas reinforcement builds the attitude that "when I do this for you, good things happen". Bribery is about cajoling dogs into doing what we ask by showing them the money and holding our breaths while they weigh their options. Reinforcement of a known behaviour is about surprising the dog with a wide variety of rewards as a thank you for doing what we've asked. Reinforcement of a new behaviour normally involves feeding a treat for each and every repetition, but it differs from bribery in that treat presentation comes after the behaviour as early in the training process as possible. If a lure is used, it is quickly faded into a hand signal. Once the hand signal is reliable, then a verbal cue is introduced before the hand signal. Once the dog understands what the behaviour is and is reliably performing it on a verbal cue only, then the treats are faded into a variable reinforcement schedule (so the dog is now gambling) while other rewards are introduced.

So what exactly is a reward, and why specifically food? Anything the dog likes to have or do is fair game, and this is why food is such a powerful component of a reinforcement-based learning system. Eating is our first love - our first appetite, if you'd like to be corny about it. Puppies' and human infants' first behaviours all revolve around the acquisition and consumption of mom's milk. Our carnivorous companions in particular are hard-wired to be opportunistic about their food, working hard to satiate themselves before the next fast. In addition, food is incredibly convenient to dispense, allowing for rapid and numerous repetitions, especially if kibble is used. Fellow raw feeders, bear in mind that kibble now comes in many forms other than the traditional extruded type: baked, freeze-dried, refrigerated cooked, refrigerated raw, frozen raw, and air-dried. I simply use breakfast to teach new behaviours, and whatever is left over goes into an enrichment meal toy, such as the Busy Buddy Barnacle for dry kibble or the KONG Wobbler for raw meat nuggets. And lastly, the biggest reason to use food in training is that most of us feed our dogs twice a day. Those are two major opportunities for us to reinforce something about our dogs that we like, each and every day!

This leads us into the concept of simply taking advantage of anything a dog likes as an opportunity for reinforcement. Does your puppy like to play with other puppies? Then don't allow him to meet people or other dogs while he's straining toward them. Instead, ask them to wait while you get his attention. Prompt him - or wait for him - to make eye contact with you on a loose leash, then release him to play off leash  in a safe area as a powerful reward! Does your dog like car rides? Then ask him to walk on a loose leash to the car. Does your dog like to play with toys? Then surprise him with a rousing game of fetch as a reward for a rocket recall during a squirrel chase. Reinforcement-based parenting is about thinking of the world in terms of opportunities for reinforcement rather than distractions.

Food is indeed invaluable in efficiently training new behaviours, and lure-and-reward in particular is the most basic technique that everyone thinks of in conjunction with positive reinforcement. Bribery plucks out nothing but the luring part, a mere blip in the reinforcement learning mosaic. Everyone uses food - you know, to keep our dogs alive. Most people just use it to make their dogs fat, many use it to bribe their dogs, and some actually use it to reinforce good choices and trained behaviours. Now that the distinctions are clear, which will you choose?
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How do dogs learn?

It's a reasonable - even essential - question to ask before embarking on a journey to help them learn our language, live in our world, and coexist peacefully in our quirky social structure. The fields of learning theory, canine cognition, and canine ethology are all constantly-evolving sciences, but there are some fundamentals of learning theory that every pet owner should familiarise himself with in order to properly apply the techniques taught in basic classes.

Classical conditioning: by pairing a neutral stimulus to an existing stimulus that already elicits an emotional response, we can change the subject's emotional response to the formerly neutral stimulus. Does Pavlov ring a bell?

Operant conditioning: altering the frequency of a behaviour by controlling its consequences. It all boils down to five categories. Four of these are commonly referred to as the four quadrants of operant conditioning because they are easy to represent in a chart. The fifth is extinction: a behaviour that is not reinforced will decrease in frequency.
Artwork by Lili Chin

We can't mention the work of B.F. Skinner (widely considered to be the father of operant conditioning) without taking into account nature's role in shaping behaviour. Like many a good PhD student, Keller Breland's claim to fame arose from questioning the shortcomings of Skinner's work. He wrote The Misbehavior of Organisms as a direct argument against Skinner's The Behaviour of Organisms, both excellent reads. The gist of it? Nature plays a role as well as nurture, so always be aware that dogs will be dogs, cats will be cats, and humans will be humans.

A primary reinforcer is something that an organism innately desires and is motivated to obtain. The primary example for almost any species - certainly for dogs and humans - is food. The earliest distinguishable behaviours in newborn puppies and human infants all revolve around the acquisition of milk. Other notable primary reinforcers include social interaction and play in its various forms.

secondary reinforcer (bridge/marker) is a neutral stimulus, such as a distinct sound, that has been paired with a primary reinforcer via classical conditioning so that the secondary reinforcer begins to elicit the same response as the primary reinforcer. In dogs, the most commonly used secondary reinforcers are a verbal marker and a clicker, but other stimuli can also be used, such as a gentle touch for blind dogs or a light flash for deaf dogs.

General process of training behaviours

  1. Choose a marker that you can use to precisely mark a behaviour the instant it happens. You can use a clicker or a verbal marker, such as "yes", "good", or "click".
  2. Pair the marker with a primary reinforcer.
  3. Obtain or wait for a behaviour or a loose approximation of the behaviour (more on that later!).
  4. Mark the instant the behaviour occurs, then reward promptly, causing the behaviour to become more readily offered.
  5. Repeat until the dog is offering the behaviour without prompting after each reward, at least 8/10 times. 
  6. Add a verbal (or other) cue after each reward so that it precedes the behaviour that the dog is now offering.
  7. Practise in new environments, only changing environments or adding distractions once your dog has mastered the new challenge with 8/10 reliability. Don't expect your new dog to respond to his name while romping about the dog park even though he does it perfectly in class! Set him up for success.
Let's put this together into a practical scenario:
  1. Gather your dog, clicker, and treats (such as his regular meal) in a non-distracting environment at breakfast time.
  2. Wait for your dog to make eye contact. The instant he does, click, then treat. Ensure that the click is the earliest predictor of the treat - do not make any motions toward the treat bag or bowl before clicking, or these stimuli will "block" the effectiveness of the click.
  3. Once the dog reliably looks back up at you after eating each treat, at least 8/10 times, begin to say his name before he looks at you.
  4. Practise the name game with very mild distractions until you again reach 8/10 reliability. The first step you will take is to say his name while he is not looking at you but also not particularly interested in anything else going on. By reinforcing baby steps and adding in some advanced concepts later, you will eventually be able to command your dog's full attention if he takes off after a deer or is engaged in a wrestling match with a dog at the other end of the field!

About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.