Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cue Discrimination

One of the things I love about clicker training is that it encourages the student to try different behaviors without fear of being corrected for the wrong response. If I am teaching my dog to sit and she lies down instead, I don't do anything. I don't scold, place her in a sit or pop her collar. Nor do I praise, click, or reward her. I do absolutely nothing, which tells her she didn't get the behavior right. So she keeps trying other things in order to figure out what will make me click and give her a reward. Some animals will go through an amazing array of behaviors. This frustrates some people, but I always explain to my human students that it really means the dog is happy and comfortable in training and with continued work the dog will learn to associate "sit" with putting her bottom on the ground and nothing else.

Sometimes instead of trying a bunch of new behaviors, a dog will incorrectly link a couple of behaviors. I had an adorable Cardigan Welsh Corgi in my puppy class. We were working on "puppy push ups" - an exercise where the dog is cued to sit and lie down in rapid succession. The corgi knew "down" and he knew "sit", but he also knew that they'd been working on "roll over". So whenever he was asked to lie down from a seated position, he'd roll over before settling into the down. It was adorable, but his owners were embarrassed. After all, he was supposed to just do sits and downs! I explained that this is pretty normal behavior for a clicker trained dog and not to worry. If they worked on the sit and down separately and then only rewarded when he went from one to another without the roll over, he would learn the difference.

In our efforts to teach BabyBug to be polite, we've taught her to link a few responses that shouldn't be linked. It started off with saying "bless you" after people sneezed...or coughed...or cleared their throats. Then she started saying "thank-you-you're-welcome" whenever someone did something for her. Most people find this charming, but it embarrasses my husband a bit. I keep explaining to him 1) it's good that she does it at all, even if she sometimes gets it wrong and 2) she will learn to discriminate between the situations so she uses the proper phrase at the proper time.

Sure enough, on Saturday morning we were having a cuddle fest on the big bed and Bug gave me a kiss. I said "thank you" and she appropriately responded with "you're welcome" for the first time. Later on she thanked me for something without tacking "you're welcome" on to the end. She still forgets sometimes and combines the two, but she's started to understand the difference. And really, it makes me kind of sad. It was an adorable misunderstanding and she's just growing up so darned fast!

Self Control

Having a collie means that I have to deal with a fair amount of chasing, circling, and barking. Well, more than a fair amount of barking, really. Collies are freakin' loud when they want to be! Havana seems to have a hard time thinking when she's barking, so I've been trying to teach her some self control, but let her have fun, too. I don't want to completely suppress a natural instinct that she clearly enjoys.

I wish I could remember where I first heard of this particular self control exercise. It might have been Suzanne Clothier, although it pairs well with what Patricia McConnell, among other trainers, suggest in teaching paired commands. Havana and I go out to a large area and I get her all riled up - it doesn't take much! We play together while she leaps, lunges, barks, and whips around in circles and I egg her on. Then all of a sudden I stop dead and tell her "enough". Nothing she can do will entice me to play after I've told her "enough" and if she gets bratty, I will tell her to down. As soon as she quiets, I tell her to "get wild" again and we go back to our loud, rambunctious play. Then I tell her "enough" and she has to quiet and again, her reward for quiet is to get crazy. We repeat this several times and she never knows when it will end, but when it does it ends on a good note.

The change in Havana has been nice. She's catching on to the idea that there is a time and a place for barking and a time and a place for being quiet. The contrasts help her to accept quiet time a lot better, especially since she doesn't know if she'll be able to go crazy again or if the game is over. The not knowing seems to make her want to comply more quickly, which is exactly what I want.

After a few disastrous shopping outings with BabyBug, I decided to try something similar with her. As we walked between stores at an outdoor mall I told her that we could get our screamies out when we're outside, but inside the store we had to be quiet and polite. Then I asked "Do you have any screamies inside?" She nodded, so I said "You'd better let them out!" and we both released some screamies as we walked. Then I stood outside the store and asked if she had any more inside. She said she did, so I told her to let them out. We did repeat this about 3 times, but then she was ready to go into the store. And lo and behold, she was actually quiet! We went on to the next store and repeated our activity. Again, a relatively quiet toddler in a women's shoe store! Every once in awhile she'd start to get loud and I'd remind her that being loud is for outside. Then I had to remember to remind her to be loud when we got outside the store. It doesn't work as well if you set up guidelines for when to be loud and crazy and then never work within those guidelines.

This plan can backfire. I didn't bother to do a screamie check last week before going into a craft store, one of the places she's been obnoxious in the past. Sure enough, we get to the middle of the store and she starts shrieking just for the fun of it. I was mortified. So now I need to remember to go through our little routine before entering key stores. I really don't mind, though. If standing outside of a store doing some little shrieks and the occasional meltdown in the store are the price I pay for more frequent good shopping trips, I'm happy to do it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

If you love it, let it free...

When I teach puppy socialization classes I tell my students to try to ignore the puppies during off-leash play time. Yes, get involved if the puppies need them, but otherwise let them be dogs for 15 minutes a week. This is hard for some people. It's hard for some dogs, too. In every class there is one dog who will stick to their person and not move. They may be interested in the other puppies, but for whatever reason they want to stay near their human. Sometimes the student is flattered and doesn't try very hard to encourage the dog to play. Other students will try to get the puppy engaged in the group, but in either case the student usually feels at least a bit flattered that the puppy choses them over canine playmates.

All flattery aside, a puppy does need to learn to deal with other dogs in a positive way. Not every dog has to play with every dog it meets, but an "emotionally healthy" dog should appropriately deal with the presence of another dog. The best way to foster this is to allow puppies to play with other puppies in a safe, controlled environment - i.e. a well-run puppy play session. By this I mean puppies are divided according to play style and sometimes by size or age and the instructor is actively involved in preventing bullying, redirecting potentially aggressive play, and praising positive play behavior. Just throwing a bunch of puppies together and letting them go wild for minutes on end is not helpful to any puppy.

Then there are the students who call their puppies out of appropriate puppy-play for whatever reason - usually because they just can't help themselves. Often it's because the puppy is so cute they want to be a part of what's going on. Other times, though, I think if I picked the brain of the student I would find that they can't imagine the thought of their puppy having fun without them - their human - being involved. In other words, the human is jealous. After all, the puppy usually looks to them to have all needs met, especially entertainment. And now that puppy is having fun while excluding the human. That's a tricky adjustment for the human. (And one not every human tries to get over, but that's a different issue...)

Imagine my surprise last night when I found myself experiencing that jealousy. Only instead of calling my dog away from fun and appropriate play so I could be included, it was my 2 year old daughter I was calling away! We attended an indoor-water park birthday party and Bug was having the time of her life. The birthday girl is a 3 year old who is Bug's first good friend and Bug loves to follow her around and copy her. I've been so pleased that Bug has someone her own age to play with since her life is very full of a variety of adults but no one her age.

So why did I keep calling Bug's attention away from her friend and toward whatever I wanted to show her? The best I could figure out is that I was jealous! Yes, part of it was because I am very used to being Bug's Number One playmate, but there was an underlying jealousy factor as well. If Bug has other friends, friends her own age, will she still find me as fun and exciting as she has for the past 2 years? Because it's a big ego boost to be considered as hilarious and entertaining as my daughter considers me.

Once I realized what I was doing to Bug I was able to take a step back and let her interact freely with her friend, as long as what they were doing was safe. Unfortunately the damage was done. Yes, Bug would play with her friend, but she wanted me along as well and would look to me before looking to her friend for the next activity.

Like puppies, children need to interact with others their own age, as well as adults, in order to have the social skills necessary to function in the world. Actually, I'd argue it's more important for children to have playmates and unstructured playtime since they pretty much have to interact with other people as they get older. At least an anti-social dog can be kept away from all other dogs, although that's not much of a life for the dog which is why I advocate puppy socialization as much as I do.

Now I know the error of my ways and will hopefully improve the next time Bug has a play date. It's not easy, but if I love my child, and I truly do, I need to give her some freedom to explore and learn from others her own age. I hope that in the long run it will foster a friendship between us as she becomes an adult. Or at least not send her to the therapist's couch for decades of therapy...