Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Playtime Gals!

The cairn terrier I had growing up never really had a chance to be around other dogs. She was friendly enough, but my family just never knew other dogs to put her with. Cousteau liked to play with other dogs when he was younger, but he was never really appropriate with them. His misread or ignored other dogs' signals and was generally more of a pain in the butt than a good playmate. I attribute this partly to being a Lab and partly because he was separated from his mother, and primary dog-language instructor, when he was only 5 weeks old and really needing those lessons. Then there was Beamish, who loved to play but was fear aggressive toward other dogs and would start fights as often as he'd have a nice play session.

Imagine my joy to now have Havana, my playtime queen. As a dog trainer, few things make me happier than seeing a group of dogs playing nicely together. Many dogs seem to have a favorite game and gravitate toward other dogs who will play that game with them. Not Havana. She just wants to play and will do whatever the other dog wants to do. Cousteau wants to play tug? She'll tug like mad. JJ wants to be chased? Havana chases. Toby wants to play bitey face? Then bitey face it is! She respects most signals from other dogs and is appropriate in correcting dogs who go too far with her. She may snap or growl, but as long as the dog backs off it doesn't go farther than that. I compare this to someone saying "Hey! Back off!" or "Let's tone it down a bit."

Collies happen to have a pretty innate sense of rules (as they see them) and since they were bred to read sheep to be able to herd them, I think they're a bit more in tune to the body language of other dogs as well. Also in Havana's favor is that she was allowed to be with her mother and litter mates until she was 9 weeks old. She also had a couple of other dogs in the house to play with. The breeder knows what appropriate play looks like and was able to intervene when necessary, but typically it was mom who gave necessary corrections. If I ever buy another puppy from a breeder, it will be a puppy who has been with litter mates and a mother, or mother figure, until I pick it up.

Bug, while not quite as versatile as Havana, was my little two-legged collie this weekend at a party we hosted. I wasn't sure how she would feel about a bunch of kids being in her house, playing with her toys, and in some cases, taking her mama's attention. She did really well. We set up things as best we could by telling her she could pick 3 toys to put up and away, but everything else, with the exclusion of her lovey, Geti, was fair game for others to play with.

Usually Bug is surrounded by adults who are willing to cater to whatever game she wants to play. She doesn't always like kids because they aren't as easy to direct, but for a good 5 hours she was constantly playing and on the go. She played store, playhouse, cars, tag, ball, and who knows what all else. She sure wasn't coming to me for ideas! She followed along with what the other children thought up and added her own flair. But she also was willing to lead younger or quieter children. She played "go up and down stairs" with a 2 year old for several minutes, until the 2 year old got her confidence and could do it by herself.

In some ways, introducing children to appropriate play is a bit like socializing puppies. There does need to be an enforcing figure to make sure nothing goes too horribly wrong and you want to make sure that the play group is made up of children who have somewhat similar play styles. (Putting the rough and tumble ball crazy child with the shy, quiet doll lover can eventually result in good play, but it will take some more patience than just putting the kid who loves tag with the kid who loves balls and the doll lover with a child who enjoys dress up.)

You also need to teach children approrpiate language and coping strategies to deal with play they don't like. Giving them specific words and telling them it is ok to get up and walk away to do something else can be very helpful and empowering to a child. Of course, the child also needs to respect a playmate who uses similar words and strategies.

I'm not so naive as to think that Bug is now a super-play wizard and will be a welcomed asset to any play group a child begged to come to everyone's house because she's so wonderful. And I know full well that not every play interaction will be as positive as last weekend's was. But I was glad to see that my child does have the social skills to have fun in an environment with many children - and without coming running to me to tattle over every little thing!

I wish I could take all the credit for this weekend's sucess, but I can't. I'm proud of the groundwork I laid, but I think the work Bug's preschool teachers have done has really helped her to understand and accept play with other children. I'm very, very glad that I listened to my gut (and my wallet, but mostly my gut) and sent Bug to a preschool that emphasizes social skills over academics. She'll still be ready for kindergarten and by being exposed to early language and math skills, but she's being exposed in such a way that she has to interact with other children during that exposure.

I can take some credit for Havana's play successes. Her breeder and genetics set her up very well for success, but I've made sure that she has appropriate playmates and that she stays appropriate in play, even if the other dog doesn't say anything.

Could both of my playtime gals have been successful without much input from me? Possibly. Probably. Goodness knows there are children and dogs who have had every disadvantage that still do very well socially. But I feel better knowing that I've done what I can to foster good social skills and at least for now, they have been paying off.

(Now I just hope and pray that I don't get a call from the preschool today asking me to pick up Bug after she started a huge fight...)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Work Smarter, Not Harder

I have an interesting puppy class this session. Out of 10 dogs, all but one is a sporting/gun dog and the one that isn't is a standard poodle mix, so I figure that's about the same thing. Can you imagine the energy level of even 8 of these puppies in one room?! Oh, did I mention that at least 3 of them have a future in field work.

Don't get me wrong, the puppies are great and the owners are committed. When they are focused on training the room is eerily quiet and the attention is amazing. However, a very important part of puppy socialization class is allowing the puppies to play in safe, managed play groups. The first night way chaos! Puppies careened all over our 60x40 classroom. No one could catch their puppies, the arousal level went over the top (both the puppies' and mine), and it was just a free-for-all. Basically everything I cringe to think about in a puppy play session.

I wasn't going to scrub the playtime. For one thing it's important. For another, I think the puppy owners would lynch me. :) So my fearless co-instructor and I did some strategizing.

The next week we had three play areas. A small pen for the smallest sized pups, a large area for the shy pups, and a much smaller area - probably about 25x10 area - for the wild puppies. When I explained the new play areas the people with the more exuberant dogs looked at me like I was insane. Why give the most active dogs the smaller space?

The owners soon saw the method to my madness. With the more confined space it was much easier to catch puppies to interrupt inappropriate play. We also added many more breaks in the play to keep arousal levels down and it was much easier on the owners to collect their pups during breaks. Pups were also encouraged to wrestle and play-fight since there wasn't as much room to perform out-of-control zoomies. Play was much more appropriate and I think all of the pups had a lot more fun. I know the instructors did!

I realized that in a sense I've been doing the same thing with Bug. We've been having nap and bed time issues so as soon as we get to her room, I close the door so it isn't as easy for her to have access to the whole house. (She's fast, but I'm especially slow now that I'm 5 1/2 months pregnant!) From there we can get settled more easily. We're also struggling getting dressed and fixing hair, so again, before I even mention what we're doing, I make sure we're in a room with a door that closes. Just the symbolism of the door seems to help her understand that we're settling and doing whatever it is that needs to be done. As soon as the task is done, the door is ceremoniously flung open and the world is her oyster once again. :)

Since I've been consciously confining ourselves these events have been less hectic. If I let her play and get involved in something first it's much harder to get her to change gears even for a moment, especially if she can see ALL the things in the house she'd rather be doing. The smaller area lets her focus a bit more. And I can catch her when she takes off naked.

I guess what it comes down to is that I've spent a lot of time establishing behavioral boundaries in both dogs and my daughter, but I never thought about the advantages of physical boundaries as well. Not that little ones should be in small spaces all the time, but if you are trying to get something specific done it can help with focus and also with some anxiety, depending on what you are trying to do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

You (don't) gotta fight, for the right....

In my puppy classes I teach the humans that they have the right to control who interacts with their dogs and how they do it. They need to realize that their puppies rely on them and if they think the puppy will be overwhelmed by a person or situation it is their responsibility to help the puppy through it and get the heck out. One of the most common, and potentially most damaging, situations is when children swarm a puppy and love on it without asking. I tell people they are within their rights to step in front of their dog, tell the children to slow down or back off, and refuse them the privilege of petting the dog if the children can't or won't follow instructions. How nice they are about it is up to them. :) There are just too many dogs in the world who are skittish around children because of a bad experience during an impressionable time and that makes life so much more difficult for the dog and its owner. There are many other examples of times that owners can and should step in to control a situation with their dog as well, and no one should feel guilty about doing it, regardless of the response of other people. Maybe that makes you the crazy dog lady/guy, but hey they don't have to live with your dog - you do. You need to do what you feel is right for you and your dog.

Parents also have the right to insist that certain behavior is or is not allowed around their child. If you feel strongly that TV time should be restricted, then the babysitter that you pay should not allow unrestricted access. If you feel that adults should be referred to as Mr. or Ms So&So, then it's ok for the child to not use the adult's first name even if invited. And if you feel that racist or denigrating comments should not be used around an impressionable child (who likes to do impressions), then it is completely within your right to request that those comments not be said in front of the child. You may be accused of being over protective or overly sensitive in these situations, but ultimately, YOU are the parent. You make the decisions.

Puppies and babies don't come with owner's manuals. As the ones responsible for these lives all we can do is the best we can. We do what we feel is right and it is our right, as the responsible party, to insist that certain reasonable behaviors be followed in our homes or with our vulnerable responsibilities. And there is no reason to feel guilty about it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Competitive Notions

Bug recently celebrated her third birthday. She was fortunate to get many wonderful gifts, including Hi-Ho Cherry Oh and Go Fish. Bug loves playing these games - probably because she gets the adult's undivided attention while we play.

I am not a fan of a society who protects our children from competition. I feel that propping kids up by not keeping score at their sporting events, eliminating grades from grade school, or telling them they're doing a great job when they're not is just setting them up for frustration, confusion, and failure when they get older. Because believe it or not, life is competitive. Harvard isn't going to let Junior in just because Mommy said Cs were ok even though the kid was slacking. The boss isn't going to hire all 12 applicants for one job simply to make sure no one's feelings are hurt. A store owner or manager who can't run the store in the black isn't going to be allowed to keep "playing" because she wants to. I'm not saying we should turn play groups into mini Olympic-style competitions or that children should have to interview to get into preschool, but I do believe that competition should be introduced at developmentally appropriate levels so children learn how to deal with success and failures in a safe, protected environment before they are adults and on their own.

But, back to HiHo Cherry Oh and Go Fish. My husband and I have decided to play these games according to the traditional rules, which means that there is one winner at the end. I may make some choices to let my daughter have a bit of an advantage, but I refuse to throw the game just so she could win. I did consider it at one time and then she beat the pants off me three times in a row and I decided it was insulting to her to underestimate what she could do.

However, what I do find myself doing is to make light of the times when one of us has a run of bad luck or looses the game. In Hi Ho Cherry Oh if the spinner lands on the over turned basket you have to put all of the cherries back on the tree. When this happens to me I respond with a "Oh boy, look at that! I have to start over" and start over in a matter of fact way. Or I make a very dramatic "Urgggggghhhh!" and goofy face which is guaranteed to make Bug laugh. When Bug has to start over I try to be just as fun. We count the cherries going back (counting is tons of fun for this kid) or I point out that we'll be able to play longer now. Basically we look for the positive. And sometimes we keep playing even after one of us has won. I will point out that one of us has won, but we can keep going if she'd like to, or we can start a new game.

I realized as Bug cheerfully continued on from a set back in her game that I really should practice what I preach. Oh sure, when I'm with Bug I take my set backs in good humor, but when I compete with my dogs, particularly Cousteau, I let the inevitable set backs take the fun out of working with my friend.

Cousteau loves agility, but I'm terrified to compete with him because I can't handle the thought of not qualifying (aka NQ). Everyone I know who competes has NQs - it goes with the territory. The last agility trial I watched I paid close attention to the NQs. Most people came off the course with good grace even after knowing they or their dog made a mistake. I often heard people say "Well, the teeter went really well" or "He knocked the bar, but at least he took the jump. That's progress!" I admire that so greatly and it's something I can do when watching other people, I just can't do it for myself. But, I never realized that until playing a child's game.

So what can I do? The issue isn't with my child or with my dogs, but with myself. I guess I can look at it as I do any training problem, only the trainee is myself. I need to set myself up for success by doing more run thrus where the final score doesn't matter, but running a new course well does. I need to click and treat myself for the good things I do on the course and point out 3 things that went well at the end of a run, even if it was pretty ugly overall. I need to take the pressure off my dog, who honestly just does what I tell him to do, even if I don't realize it, and look to myself for changes. Basically, I CAN'T BLAME THE DOG. Boy, does that stink! Something will actually be MY fault and I'll have to do something to change it. That will take some getting used to.

Let's see if this dog trainer can let her dogs and child teach her something instead of the other way around...

They are what they are...

It's been quite a while since my last post - roughly 3.5 months. I've had the will, but not the energy to post since I found out I was pregnant a few days after the last time I was here. This is wonderful news - we're very excited, but I've also been pretty sick and miserable for 3.5 months. :P But this brings me to the point of this post - kids and dogs are what they are.

I distinctly remember when I was pregnant with Bug clutching the toilet on my birthday. I didn't vomit often with her, but my birthday was an exception. As I'm retching and wishing it was July already and my baby was in my arms, Cousteau came into the bathroom and pushed himself against me. I thought to myself "Oh, how sweet. He wants to comfort me!" Then I retched again and he stuck his head through my legs to try to drink out of the toilet. It wasn't the chance to offer comfort but the chance to score birthday cake, one way or another, that led him to the bathroom.

Fast forward to this week. I'm driving along the highway hoping against all hope that the Chinese food which sounded so good 10 minutes before would finally settle my queasy stomach. It didn't. Instead I started vomiting at 60 mph. I won't go into details, but it was nasty. Thankfully Bug was with my Mom so she didn't have to witness my distress, but I did call my mom to get some sympathy once I was home and all cleaned up. Bug wanted to talk and she very sweetly said "How are you feeling, Mama?" I went on to tell her that I wasn't feeling well, that I got sick in the car and my tummy hurt. Her response? "Oh, well we're going to have a picnic on the beach. Bye Ma..." and she tossed the phone back to my mom. Mama being sick really didn't have any impact on her at the moment since she had Nana to play with.

The point - while some times there are stories of amazing empathy from children or dogs, ultimately they are selfish creatures. This doesn't make them bad or amoral, it simply makes them kids and dogs. Being self-centered is what has gotten them through the ages. With children we do what we can to teach them to think of others which in turn may just help the human race survive a little longer or at least better. Dogs aren't humans. They are dogs and what serves them best is to think "What's in it for me?" Don't get me wrong, there are some dogs who do seem to have an amazing empathetic link to people, like Greyfriar's Bobby who visited his master's grave every day for years until he himself died. But those dogs are the exception to the rule. The rest of us have wonderful companions that are bonded to us, but ultimately are concerned about themselves. Actually, they're not so different from people after all...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Little pitchers have big ears...

Raggzz, the cairn terrier we had growing up, wasn't necessarily the smartest dog on the planet. She wasn't dumb, but she wasn't above average. Well, she was the cutest darn cairn terrier ever born, but that had nothing to do with her brain power. However, despite a complete lack of training she managed to learn what “eat”, “walk”, and “bath” meant. In fact, we even switched the words around a bit and started spelling eat and bath and saying “promenade” instead of “walk” and she still figured it out. It was basically a kind of Pavlovian or classically conditioned learning – she always heard those words in conjunction with those events so hearing them made her anticipate the event. We learned to be careful in how we used those terms in every day conversation. Otherwise we risked unleashing the full range of terrier emotions about whatever it was she thought we had said about her.

Yesterday I was driving along, listening to NPR as I usually do. (Yes, I'm a liberal crunchy granola girl, if you haven't already figured that out!) Bug was in the back seat. She'd rather be listening to music, but I can only take so much of Elmo and Ken Lonnquist, no matter how talented they are, especially if I'm driving along a tedious route as I was yesterday. The NPR discussion was about Barack Obama and Reverand Wright and I was only listening with half an ear. Then I hear a little voice from the back seat. “O. Bam. O... Obama! Bah-rack...Barack Obama!!!” She was sounding out the unusual name just like she tries to sound out words. And she was pretty darn proud of herself for sounding like the radio host.

While Bug doesn't currently have an extreme association with the name Barack Obama, like Raggzz did with her key words, it's still pretty amazing that she was able to pick out that name, a name she's heard so much on the radio, out of all the political mumbo jumbo. And it also reminds me that I'd better keep my *&@# mouth shut when I'm driving or my child will pick up more than a liberal education!


When Cousteau was about a year old, he decided to venture into the open door of our 110 year old house's cellar. That's not so surprising, but was amazing is that with all of the stuff down there for him to get into – hoses, gardening equipment, paint supplies, litter box, packing materials, etc. - he chose to find a chunk of rat poison laid down by the house's previous owners (something we were completely unaware of). How did he know to find the most toxic substance there? It must be something hardwired into snotty puppies. $800 and 3 vet visits later he was fine.

Bug has had many painting projects. She's used tempra, water color, and acrylic purchased from the kid craft aisle. So why, oh why, does she decide to taste the acrylic paint used for outdoor terra cotta projects?! The stuff that doesn't say “non toxic” or “safe for children”. No, instead she's sucking on a paintbrush full of the paint who's label saying NOTHING about toxicity. She's never had the urge to taste paint before. I blame the Labrador. Thankfully, the child is also fine.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Figthing Fears

I have a toddler and a collie – I know a little bit about dealing with fears and phobias that pop up at random and I think I'm getting pretty good at working through these situations effectively.

Conditioned Emotional Response or CER – classical conditioning forming an emotional reaction between a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus. We often deal with fearful responses and CERs are very strong and hard to extinguish.

Poor Beamish must have been trained on a shock collar before I got him. The mere sound of the warning tone before he'd get a burst of citronella from a scent collar or on the electronic fence, or even the warning tone on a cross walk signal, turned him into a frozen, quivering mass. There was no shock associated with the tone the 3 years he was with me, but the fear was there whenever he heard the sound.

Bug had no particular feelings about my cousin until my cousin watched Bug during Bug's seperation anxiety phase. Now Bug always associates my cousin with me leaving and says she doesn't like her, even though they have a lot of fun when they are together and even if I'm not going anywhere.

Counterconditioning – changing the student's association of a conditioned stimulus to an opposite association.

One of Beamish's triggers was the presence of a sheltie. Whenever he'd see a sheltie he would get very stiff and start showing aggressive body language. If the sheltie got close enough, Beamish would lunge at it. We happened to be staying in a place where we saw a couple of shelties frequently. Beamish and I would sit off to the side and every time he noticed a sheltie I would click and give him a treat. By the end of that trip he was doing a pretty good job of looking at the sheltie calmly and turning to me for a treat. We had begun to counter his negative response toward shelties with a more positive, or at least neutral, response.

My aunt happened to watch Bug several times during her separation anxiety phases. She knew that Bug had a strong negative response to my leaving, so she brought ice cream with her whenever she came to watch Bug. Soon Bug was telling me “bye bye” because she knew she wasn't getting “i teem” until momma left.

Desensitization – introducing small doses of the fear-provoking stimulus and gradually working up to exposure to the entire stimulus.

Cousteau did not enjoy our 19 hour drive from Massachusetts to Wisconsin. (Neither did we!) He refused to get into the car for weeks after we moved, probably because he was afraid he'd be stuck in the back of a packed car with us screaming at him to lie down or he'd get tangled in his seat belt during rush hour traffic or some doG awful road construction again. We started throwing treats in the car and letting him get back out. Then we took short trips to fun places. After a few months he was able to get back into the car on his own without complaint and even tolerates road trips well now.

For some reason, Bug was terrified of the vacuum. From the very first time I turned it one she freaked out. We started vacuuming in a room as far away as we could get from her and worked closer one room at a time as she allowed us to. We also introduced a toy vacuum and a smaller, quieter electric sweeper. Over time she could happily play with her toy and remain in the room with the electric sweeper. Then she moved up to using the sweeper herself. Now she can tolerate being on the same floor, a room away from the “big Daddy vacuum”.

Flooding or response prevention – a barrage of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus present. In other words, the presence of the big scary thing in huge amounts.

I didn't realize I was flooding with Lacey, one of my foster dogs, and I'm lucky it worked. She was afraid of big, tall men with deep voices. My dad happens to fit that category. We started off with some counterconditioning, but then I needed to run into my grandmother's house and dogs aren't allowed there. So I tossed Lacey's leash to my dad and went in. Lacey began freaking out, but eventually settled down. I don't think this would have worked if I hadn't started with the counterconditioning, though.

I can't think of a time when I've used this with Bug. It just isn't a very pleasant way to deal with a CER. I've tried it a bit with my fear of snakes by forcing myself to go into the herpitarium at the zoo and look at the snakes surrounding me. Even though the snakes are behind glass, the longer I am there, the more anxious I feel. Maybe if I sat in that room for hours and hours I would become so exhausted by the constant anxiety that I wouldn't be able to shake and hyperventilate, but I'd be just as terrified the next time Bug and my husband wanted to see the snakes.

Schedules of Reinforcement or When and Why Does the Good Stuff Happen

Schedules of Reinforcement...I hate these guys. Just give a dog a treat and be done with it! But it's not that simple and different schedules are more effective for certain things, so here goes my take on them.

Schedule of Reinforcement – “a program or rule that determines how and when a response will be followed by a reward.” The schedule has an effect on how the response is learned and how it is maintained. Use a different schedule for learning than for maintaining.

Continuous Reinforcement Schedule or CRF - there is a reinforcement each time the response is observed. This is used when the student is first learning the skill.

Havana has had a hard time bringing the ball to me from the flyball box. At this point she always gets her tug if she brings me the ball, no matter what else happened on the run.

Bug is in the early stages of potty training. Every time she uses the potty she gets lavishly praised and choses some kind of reward (mint, tell daddy, call Nana, etc.).

Partial Reinforcement Schedule or PRF – also called an intermittent reinforcement schedule. Certain responses are reinforced, not all. The reinforcement is offered on a ratio or at intervals. Good for maintaining all-or-nothing behaviors.

  • fixed ratio FR – a set number between the number of responses and the number or rewards

    I actually don't use this one very much for Bug or my dogs. It doesn't work as well for me as other schedules. Hypothetically:

Cousteau is on a FR-4 schedule (4 responses before his reward). If he gives me four good sits I
will reward him after the 4
th sit.

A silly game Bug and I could play is where she'd hit my palm and I'd wait for 3 slaps before I
grab her hand. This would be a FR – 3.

  • variable ratio VR – the number of responses between each reinforcement changes from one time to the next. Also known as the “slot machine schedule” since this is what makes those one armed bandits so reinforcing for some people. Good for maintaining all-or-nothing behaviors.

When Havana works on heeling she may be reinforced after four steps one time, nine steps the next time, and five steps the time after that. This would be a VR – 6 because on average she has to give six responses before getting reinforced.

I try not to fall into this schedule, but I'm sure I do sometimes and I just can't think of a time. What I see with other children, especially in the grocery store, is a child asking, whining, demanding something over and over again. Sometimes it takes 5 requests and the parent gives permission just for some peace. Other times it might take 20 requests or on a rough day the parent may give in after one or two requests. This would be a VR – 9 or on average, this imaginary child gets what s/he wants after every ninth request.

  • random ratio RR – there is no correlation between the the behavior and the reinforcement. It just happens, like Fate.

      Cousteau walks by the pop corn popper and a piece falls out as his feet.

      Bug sits on the couch and Havana comes over to sniff her face for no apparent reason (this is very reinforcing for Bug who just wants the animals by her.

  • fixed interval FI – the response is reinforced only after a certain amount of time has passed.

    When working on proofing Cousteau's sit stay, he is only reinforced for holding position for at least 60 seconds. He may have to hold for longer than 60 seconds, but he will not be reinforced before 60 seconds has passed.

Bug LOVES her vitamins. (Or Bite-A-MUNS) She asks for them many times a day, but can only
have them in the morning. It does no good for her to ask at lunch time, after her nap, and during
dinner because she only gets that vitamin after she says please in the mornings.

  • variable interval VI -­ reinforcement occurs after a varied amount of time passes.

      Cousteau likes to run agility, but he has to wait quietly for his turn. He may have to wait quietly for three fast dogs to run, for one dog needing a lot of coaching to run, or he may be on the course back to back if we don't want to reset jump heights.

Bug likes to look at the pictures on the LOLCats website. If she asks 10 minutes after we first
looked at the pictures, there may not be any new ones. If she asks 20 minutes after we first
looked there may be two new ones.

Differential Reinforcement Schedule – the quickness of the response determines if the reinforcement.

Havana is learning impulse control as well as stimulus control. I will walk around a room with a toy and ask her to “sit” or “down” at random. If she slowly goes into position I tell her “uh uh” and walk on. If she gets into position quickly I tell her “get it” and we tug.

Even though Bug is capable of walking up and down stairs on her own, she'd rather have me with her. If I say I'm going upstairs and she tells me to wait, but doesn't show any indication of coming by me, I go upstairs on my own. If instead she puts down her toy and runs over to me we walk upstairs together.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors or DRI – rewarding responses that cannot be done at the same time as an unwanted behavior. Also called alternative response training or countercommanding.

Havana was the most mature dog in her beginning agility class. We had a problem with loose dogs so I taught her if a loose dog came to her that she should look at me. If she was looking at me she wasn't face to face with a hyper, adolescent dog.

When I have a lot of dishes to do I bring a stool for Bug to stand on at the sink. She gets bubbly water and a few plastic dishes to wash while I do the rest of the dishes. If she's washing dishes with me she's not whining about wanting my attention or doing things to get my attention.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors or DRO – is what I call “hey, at least it's not anything bad.” You pick one target problem behavior in the student and reward anything that isn't that behavior.

My first dog walking client was a nightmare on leash. One day I got smart and as long as she wasn't pulling, I clicked and treated her. She may have been sniffing, peeing on something, looking around, whatever, it didn't matter because she wasn't pulling me.

I do the same thing with Bug. When she's having a tough day and she's been whining and getting into lots of trouble I make sure to tell her how much I like everything that isn't driving me insane. If she's been screaming in the car at the top of her lungs and she starts talking to her giraffe, I'll tell her how much I like hearing her talk with Geti. Then if she starts singing I'll tell her I enjoy that. I don't care what she's doing just so long as it's not screaming in my ear from the backseat.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Odds and Ends of Learning Theory Vocabulary

Premack's Theory of Reinforcement – something good can reinforce something not as good. If you do a certain thing you have the chance to do something else that you really like. This has the possibility of increasing the likelihood of the desired behavior without having to use a standard food reward, although food can be used.

My insane black Lab, Beamish, had the hardest time learning “stay”. I was very frustrated, both with the lack of progress and with him bowling me over as we would head up stairs. One day I told him to “stay” at the bottom of the stairs and he actually did it while I went up about 4 stairs. Then I released him and he tore up the stairs. I started asking him for longer and longer stays with running up the stairs as a reward. He wound up with a fabulous stay.

This evening I brought out a plastic recorder for Bug to play. She was being pushy and grabby so I told her to sit on a pillow and wait for me to call her over for it. When she finally managed to sit in one place, I told her to come over and get the recorder.

Extinction – when no reinforcement is given for a response, the response is no longer offered. Be aware of extinction bursts or periods of response, often very intense.

See http://dogtrainersbaby.blogspot.com/2007_04_22_archive.html for examples of extinction and extinction bursts.

Capturing behavior – waiting until the student does the behavior and reinforce it right away. (Works well with very active students who offer a lot of behaviors.)

I wanted to put Beamish's jumping up on cue. I stuck a clicker and treats in my pocket and walked into the house. Beamish jumped on me and I reinforced him for it.

My mom realized that Bug hadn't pooped all morning. After lunch she put Bug on the potty and low and behold, there was poop. She was heavily praised and got extra stories. (And probably candy, but she didn't mention that part.)

Shaping by successive approximations – the student is reinforced for small steps leading up to the finished behavior. (Great for fearful or aggressive dogs – or kids I guess.)

In heeling Havana was first rewarded for sitting at my left and looking at me. Then she was reinforced only if she took a step when I did. Then reinforced for taking two steps, then three, etc. until she was able to walk a straight line across the room in heel position.

Bug started off building towers by lining up blocks. Seeing how impressed we were was reinforcing, so she started putting one block on top of the other and oohs and aahs ensued. Then she figured out the towers make a great crash if they're taller and she's gradually developed her skill to be able to build towers 15-20 blocks high.

Prompting or luring – using physical placement, manipulating the environment, or a treat to encourage movement toward the desired behavior. (A quick way to get the behavior.)

To teach Havana to finish to the right (sit in front of me and then move around to my right, swing behind me and get into heel position on my left) I put a treat in front of her face and let her follow it around behind me until she was in heel position. Then I clicked her and let her have the treat once she was in position.

I'm not proud of this, but sometimes a Mom's gotta do what a Mom's gotta do. Sometimes when Bug is being very difficult about leaving a room – like her Daddy's office when he's trying to have a conference call with work – I take her beloved giraffe and walk out of the room with it. As much as she loves Daddy, she has to have her giraffe at all times so she follows me. As soon as she's out of the office and the door is closed she gets her giraffe.

Back Chaining – breaking a behavior down into its individual parts and then the last part of the behavior is trained first so that it becomes rewarding in and of itself. (Uses Premack.) Then the second to last behavior is trained, third to last, etc.

We have a flyball tournament this week so I've got those examples in my mind. The very first thing I did when I got Havana was teach her to tug, largely because in flyball I want her to come back to the tug. Then we set her at the box and had her jump from the box to me. From there we taught her how to operate the box and then to go from the start line over the jumps to the box. Each old behavior was a reward for the newly learned behavior.

Potty training is also very much at the forefront of my mind. Bug loves playing in the water in the sink. From there I let her “help” flush the toilet, then put toilet paper in to watch it swirl when she flushes. All of this before she ever even sat on the potty. We're now at the stage where she doesn't get to flush or wash her hands unless she uses the potty (as opposed to just sitting there and asking me to read her stories over and over).

Unlearning - good and bad!

Habituation – when one stops reacting to a meaningless stimuli. One is able to sense the stimulus and respond, but has learned not to. There is short term and long term habituation.

Short Term Habituation – stimulus eliciting the orienting response (or thing that makes you react) happens over and over again intensely in short intervals. The dog stops reacting relatively quickly within this period, but if the orienting response happens again after a break, there will likely be spontaneous recovery and there will again be a response.

Our friend's dog Pepper is terrified of children. Unfortunately (for her) Bug adores her. She sees Bug for about 4 hours two to three times a month. By the end of a visit she is calmer around Bug, but reverts to her fearful self the next time they meet.

Bug does not like the sensation of goats licking her. She loves to visit goats and feed them, but as soon as they lick her she squeals and tries to get away. By the end of the visit she allows the goats to lick her, but as soon as they try it the next time she squeals again.

Long Term Habituation – the stimulus eliciting the orienting response happens less frequently and with longer intervals between. These long intervals encourages long term habituation and as a result, there is less spontaneous recovery.

When we crate trained Havana to be alone at our house, the disappearance of a human brought out her orienting response (a puppy “hey! Don't leave me alone!). We made a point of leaving her crated alone one or two times a day and sometimes skipped a day here and there. (The advantages of working from home.) Over time her response to being alone was reduced and now she has no orienting response at all when she is alone in her crate.

There is a play room at the gym I use. Bug is perfectly safe there and has a pretty good time when she settles in, but she had a fit when I leave. My disappearance creates an orienting response of screaming as if she's being dismembered. My gym attendance isn't very regular, but as we've followed this same routine, Bug's response to my leaving gets less loud and of shorter duration. Maybe by the time she's 12 she'll be fine with me leaving.

Sensitization – the opposite of habituation. This happens when the reaction to an orienting stimulus gets stronger instead of weaker. It is usually involved in strong emotional responses and is more general than habituation.

Havana used to have no opinion about squirrels. However, she has been seeing more and more of them and has become very frustrated with her inability to chase them. Now when she sees squirrels she barks like crazy. (Even crazier than usual for a collie.)

Bug was watching a movie about a lost puppy. During a sad scene a sad song was playing and the music caused an orientating response. At first Bug didn't respond, but the more she listened to the song, the more upset she got. When there was a reprise of the song at the end of the movie she began wailing and could not settle down for the next 15 minutes.

Adaptation – does not involve learning. One stops reacting because of physical fatigue.

While there are examples of my own dogs going through this, what most quickly comes to mind is Cesar Milan. He will take a dog aggressive dog and run it on a treadmill until it is exhausted and then bring in another dog. The aggressive dog will not react because he physically cannot. He hasn't learned to ignore the other dog or to do a behavior incompatible to lunging or biting, just simply can't get up the energy to be aggressive. As soon as he's rested he will most likely respond aggressively again.

Before we got on the plane to visit family in Florida, Bug and I ran up and down an empty corridor in the airport. When we got on the plane she was (relatively) quiet. She didn't learn that she was supposed to be quiet on the plane, she was just too tired to bounce and be noisy. We didn't have time to run before our connecting flight and she proved that she hadn't learned to be quiet on a plane.

Learned Irrelevance – one stops responding to a stimulus because there is no consequence in the presence of the stimulus. Unlike habituation, it is unlikely to have spontaneous recovery. Instead it actually makes it more difficult for the student to condition to the stimulus because it has been irrelevant for so long.

I introduced the word “heel” to Cousteau long before he ever understood what it meant. As a result he didn't really have a heel. When I tried to teach him heel position he had a very difficult time putting together the word “heel” and where he was supposed to walk because for so long heel just sort of meant I was going to walk away and he'd better come with me eventually.

Bug used to ask to go to bed. Now when we say “one minute to bed time” and then “bedtime” she has a fit. We've gotten into the bad habit of saying these things and then not following through with putting her to bed because it's such a pain. When we do pick her up for bed she has a fit because it's completely caught her off guard. The transitional minute and the phrase “bedtime” have no mean for her any more. (Way to go, Momma and Daddy! :P )

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pavlov vs. Skinner

This section really has very little to do with every day life. Feel free to skip it unless you're a big behavior nerd like me.

There are two types of conditioning or learning. One is Classical Conditioning and the other is Operant Conditioning.

Classical conditioning happens when the student makes a connection between two things. She then responds to the first event in anticipation of the second event. The response is not required for the unconditioned stimulus to appear. This type of learning is often associated with Pavlov and his drooling dogs.

Conditioned Stimulus or CS – a stimulus or cue which has no meaning and is presented before an unconditioned stimulus.

Unconditioned Stimulus or UCS – a stimulus or cue that always causes an unconditioned response.

Unconditioned Response or UCR – something that automatically happens in the presence of the UCS. It does not have to be taught. (May be a reflex.)

Conditioned Response or CR – what is taught to the learner when she associates the CS and the UCS.

Cousteau has learned that a certain route leads to the dog park. The first time or two we went to the park nothing happened. Then he made the association between that route and the park and from that point on as soon as we approach the route to the dog park he begins to howl and sing at the top of his lungs.

CS – the route to the park

UCS – being off leash around dogs at the park

UCR – enjoyment of freedom and fun

CR – anticipation of enjoyment of freedom and fun

Bug has learned that when we shop in a certain place we will stop for Starbucks. In the beginning we could do some shopping and if I felt like a hot drink we would go into the coffee shop. That routine has been repeated enough that as soon as we are at the cash register, Bug asks me if she can have a “vanilla milk”.

CS – our presence at a cash register at a certain shopping center

UCS – vanilla milk

UCR – crave vanilla milk (or drools...)

CR – ask to go to Starbucks for vanilla milk

Operant Conditioning is when a student understands that his behavior has consequences. He must do something to make something else happen. This type of learning is associated wit B.F. Skinner, Kellar Breland, Marian Breland Bailey, and Bob Bailey.

ABCs of Operant Conditioning

A ---> B ---> C

A = Antecedent or cue (or discriminative stimulus if you want to be fancy)

B = Behavior or the student's response to the antecedent.

C = Consequence (or punishment or reward) as a result of the behavior.

In flyball Havana is told to “hit it” and must go over the 4 jumps, hit the box, catch her ball and bring it back over the jumps to me. When I have the ball, she gets her tug.

A – hearing “hit it” (or just seeing the jumps and the box)

B - bringing the ball to me

C – playing tug

Bug has learned to sit in her chair if she wants popcorn at snack time. As soon as the popcorn popper comes out she goes to her chair to wait.

A – presence of popcorn popper

B – sits in chair

C – gets a snack of popcorn (or as she says, a “nack a POPtorn”)

This is also where the concept of Thorndike's Law or the Law of Effect comes into play. That is “if a consequence is pleasant, the preceding behavior becomes more likely. If a consequence is unpleasant, the preceding behavior is less likely.” Basically – you do something and something good happens, you'll do that thing again. Do something and something bad happens, you won't do that thing again.

If I was cruising for punishment I'd get into the four possible types of consequences, but since I understand those fairly well I won't risk confusing myself. :)

Technical learning theory jargon applied to dogs and kids

Wow, it's been an embarrassingly long time since I last updated my blog. You'd think with a toddler and two active dogs that I would have tons of time to write, but somehow I don't. Go figure!

This entry will be a bit of a departure from my other entries. I'm getting ready to take the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (www.ccpdt.org) and I'm going to multi-task and up date my blog while I solidify some concepts in my head. I'm a visual and physical learner so typing gives me the chance to read what I've written and it helps to get it stuck in my brain better. But more on learning styles when I get to that point in an entry!

Much of this section on basic vocabulary comes from Pam Reid's book Excel-erated Learning. As she explains in the intro, this isn't a “how to book” it's a “why” book – interesting for the dog owners out there but particularly useful for dog trainers. The format of my study entries will be a definition of the term, an example of the concept learned from working with dogs and another observed by working with my daughter or other children.

At the most basic level, learning is a change in behavior based on past experience.

Cousteau has learned that when I am out of the kitchen, putting the entire front end of his body on the counter will enable him to reach food anywhere on that surface.

Bug has learned that positioning her stool in certain locations along the counter enables her to reach almost anything on that surface.

Both Cousteau and Bug experimented several times before finding a technique that was effective and this is the first technique tried at the next opportunity. Before they would try to reach an object with all feet firmly planted on the floor.

Learning/Performance Distinction
The distinction between knowing how to do something and actually doing it.

Cousteau can execute a perfect heel pattern in a lesson. He has learned how to do it. However, when we are in a trial setting he does not perform a perfect heel pattern. Just because he does not do a heel pattern in a trial does not mean that he never learned how to do a heel pattern. (It just looks like it!)

Bug loves to sing. She has learned the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or Tinkle, Tinkle, Widdle Stah). When asked to sing the song for guests she does not know well, she will not sing. The absence of her singing does not negate the fact that she has learned the words to the song.

Latent Learning
The act of learning how to do something but not having the ability to display that knowledge until later.

Cousteau has known for years how to get something off the counter, but he did not display that knowledge until Bug became old enough to leave food on the counter and walk away. (I swear I'm going to stop picking on the big yeller dog soon!)

Toddlers are great demonstrators of latent learning. Bug learned how and when to say one of my Dad's favorite phrases “It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.” She did not display this knowledge until at least a day later when I offered to carry something heavy for her and she replied “It's a tough job, but someone's gotta dew IT.”

Four Stages of Learning
acquisition (acquiring) – first phase where new knowledge is acquired

fluency (automatic) – second phase – response is fluid and automatic and speed of response can be improved

generalization (application) – third phase – learns that new knowledge is relevant in a variety of places and circumstances. (Rarely automatic – must be emphasized during training)

maintenance (always) – new knowledge is incorporated into the learner's “tool box” of behaviors. Needs review to stay at this level.

Cousteau took about 2 years to go from the acquisition to the maintenance of flyball skills.

Acquisition: teaching him all of the little parts – first going over one jump and then two, three and four. Then triggering the box, passing other dogs, and dealing with distractions.

Fluency: going down four jumps, getting the ball, coming back over four jumps, and getting his tug without breaking it down or frequent cueing, so basically, the sequence became automatic.

Generalization: applying the knowledge of doing the entire sequence in practice and also in tournaments both home and away.

Maintenance: we continue to practice despite the fact Cousteau has the basic steps. He will (almost) always complete the flyball sequence no matter what – other dogs in the lane, bad passes, jumps knocked over, commotion on the sidelines, different handlers, etc.

Bug LOVES her tricycle. It was hands down her favorite Christmas gift and she went from acquisition to maintenance very quickly.

Acquisition: watching how the pedals move to push the bike forward and that moving the handlebars changes the trike's direction. Figuring out where to put her hands and feet.

Fluency: pushing the pedals first for any movement and then smoother and faster movement. Holding handlebars straight and then turning them to change direction.

Generalization: being able to ride the trike not just in the kitchen, but the living room and rec room and at Nana's house. (It's too darn cold and snowy to test generalization outside yet.)

Maintenance: riding the tricycle all over the place without thinking precisely about how she's moving her hands and feet.

Principle of Parsimony
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one, unless there is evidence to the contrary. In other words, if you're sitting at a horse ranch and hear hoof beats, don't assume there's a zebra coming.

Cousteau started drooling for no apparent reason. The first time it happened I checked in his mouth to see if there was anything caught there. This is a logical and simple explanation of the behavior. I didn't see anything, but noticed a broken tooth. He stopped drooling for awhile and then started it up again. Even though the tooth didn't appear to bother him during a couple of exams by some dog savvy friends, my vet, and myself, I decided that must be the problem and scheduled a removal. This is logical, but not a simple explanation. Three weeks after the removal he drooled again. This time I realized each previous episode was when he was around a female in heat and drooling is a common event for males when a female is in heat. A simple and logical explanation for the behavior and ultimate the correct one since I've now noticed he only drools in the presence of a female in heat.

Bug has been very cranky lately. I had begun to wonder if she had some sort of illness that didn't physically manifest itself as a fever, rash, or intestinal distress, but caused a change in her behavior. This is not a simple, nor especially logical explanation given the facts I have. She was just horrible at flyball last night – refusing to sit down or cooperate with me even in the simplest requests. I commented on the behavior change to a teammate who is also a nurse working up to asking her if she'd ever heard of such a disease. She told me her son went through the same thing at that age. Then we got home and discovered Bug had horrible diaper rash. Age-appropriate behavior and obvious physical discomfort are two simple and logical explanations of the behavior. (Diaper rash is cleared up today and she's much happier.)