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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Partially Automated Place Training


When you think about volunteering with shelter dogs, you probably envision strolling along a scenic boulevard or throwing a ball in a fenced field. At Paws4ever, the shelter dogs do enjoy regular walks on 2+ miles of wooded trails and three spacious playing fields, in addition to advanced obedience and sports training. However, it's just as crucial for kenneled dogs to learn to relax in a home living environment, so staff and volunteers utilise the Home Space room to practise place training with the dogs.

The place behaviour is a simple one, yet tedious to teach. The dog is first taught, via luring or shaping, to lie down on a bed or in a crate. Once the dog has a basic idea of going to place on cue, we gradually build duration, distance, and distraction, singly and in that order. This is where things get tedious, and where the Poor Man's Pet Tutor App is able to partially automate the process, freeing up the (human) trainer to actually do another activity, such as read or use a computer, while loosely supervising. For the technically inclined, here's the Git.


Before the video, I manually spend 5 minutes teaching the shelter dog the basic idea of going to the mat and lying down. Then, I set the feeder to dispense at an interval of 5 seconds, soon enough that he hasn't yet thought about going anywhere. I then get up and do my own thing! In this case, that happens to be making a video of me doing my own thing, which is making a video of...okay, you get the point. As Kobe builds a reinforcement history with barely any input from me, I am able to occasionally increase the duration between rewards until he's happily lying there while I do my own thing, which is ultimately what most dog owners want their dogs to do the vast majority of the time.

Of all the behaviours I teach my dogs and my clients' dogs, the one I emphasize the most is immediate and undivided attention when requested to look at you or recall to you. However, a close second is its polar opposite, the ability to disconnect from you and be content doing nothing while you knock yourself out on World of Warcraft or something stronger. Let's face it: even if you buy every new enrichment toy upon release, the majority of your dog's time will be downtime. Mat training is a straightforward, algorithmic way to build this crucial life skill that doubles as a useful puppy parking behaviour for romantic dinners out on the town. And now, your computer can do it for you.

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.