Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day Three: ClickerExpo

Sunday was the last day of ClickerExpo, so we woke up extra early to pack up the car, check out of the hotel, and head over for our morning park run. There were a couple smaller dogs about Maebe's size in the "small dog" half of the park, so we decided to let them all play. Cadence fell madly in love with a little sheltie mix and was prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth, but we eventually reminded him who he came there with.

Our first seminar of the day was by British trainer Kay Laurence on training self control. It is hard to pick a favorite of the many great lectures we attended this weekend, but Kay's definitely stood out and really resonated with us, as owners of pretty high-drive dogs for whom self-control has not always been a strong point. I know that this has been due to sloppy, novice training on our parts - an issue not helped by the fact that our two most intense dogs, Jade and Tristan, were our two first training experiences.

Kay discussed how we need to be aware of our dog's mental state when we train, because "what you click is what you get." You don't want to start shaping with a dog that is stressed or shutting down, otherwise that stress might become tied to the behavior. Similarly, you don't want too much arousal and lack of control built into the behavior either. This immediately made me think of challenges we have had with Tristan when building new behaviors. Tristan is so smart, picks up on things so fast, and I swear has an understanding of the English language to rival most teenagers. But when working, he can get too high too fast and shaping can turn into a frantic, frenzied mess. I can see now how we need to work with his state of arousal and only reinforce controlled behaviors. She also pointed out how we need to be aware of our emotional state, and what our movements are communicating to the dog.

Kay talked a lot about the benefits of play and games, but also how trainers frequently don't have good rules for play. Instead of cooperative playing with a shared toy (that, she encouraged us to remember, belongs to us after all, not the dog), tug games turn into a hyper competition for resources between person and dog.

Having been involved for years in two high-energy dog sports and witnessing the training (or sometimes lack thereof) that goes on at times in the quest for the faster, higher drive dog, this really hit home with me. I have for years been baffled by the pride that handlers take showing off their battle scars after a day of competition - bleeding bit hands, scratched up bodies, torn clothes, etc. I expect my dogs to know the difference between a tug toy and my hand, and to respect me enough to not assault me for the toy.

When they were running, Jade and Tristan had good bite inhibition if they hit your hand, but did get sloppy at times and "miss" the toy. Of course, I believe there is a good argument that these dogs aren't "missing" anything. Jade was an awesome flyball dog, and I loved running him. But he had bad habits, that I know I reinforced when I didn't know any better, and that ultimately affected the pleasure of handling him somewhat. Don't get me wrong - I loved working with him and treasure my memories of his racing days - but how much more fun would it have been to not get dragged to the ring, have to fight him for the tug toy between every race, etc. I don't think these behaviors did anything to particularly enhance our relationship, nor do I believe they made him faster or have more drive (a fallacy I believed in my early days of dog sports).

Kay demonstrated playing tug and chase games with rules that help reinforce self control. Handlers should tug with their dogs, then ask for a release. If the dog does not release, the handler would hold the collar gently, so as to prevent further tugging, and wait for the dog to drop the toy. The mistake many handlers make at this point is to either whip the toy away rapidly (making the toy once again seem like a retreating prey animal) or to immediately allow tugging again. Instead, the dog should choose not to pounce on the toy again, even though it remains in range, and should sit and wait for permission to begin the game again.

This is very similar to Susan Garrett's 1-2-3 Game and Brenda Aloff's switching exercises that I have been doing with Noodle since he was a young pup, and I am pleased that he does show a lot of self-control around play, even when very wound up. The detail Kay emphasized though was that "a sit is not enough." If the dog sits, but is still in a very high state of arousal - barking, trembling, anticipating the release, etc. - you need to wait for a sign of actual relaxation and impulse control before clicking and releasing to play again. I think a lot of times, us handlers reward, and maybe even desire, a sit with the dog trembling in anticipation, as we want to have a high-drive, enthusiastic dog. This reminded me that there is a difference though between drive and arousal, and we don't want to mistake one for the other.

Afterwards we attended Kay's working lab on these exercises as observers. It was great watching Kay's different games and seeing how she worked with the dogs. Her mantra, that I have run through my head a million times already this week while working my dogs, was to ask yourself: "Is the behavior continuing or getting stronger?" It was her way of evaluating whether you were really reinforcing what you thought you were, whether your reward was actually providing reinforcement, or if the activity was self-reinforcing enough to promote it continuing. I have been using this to remind myself to check in and evaluate whether I am actually building a behavior, or just being a treat dispenser.

After lunch, we attended Alexandra Kurland's talk on "loopy training" or building complex behaviors. Among many things, she discussed how cues become reinforcers, and we can begin to build behavior chains by reinforcing one trained behavior with the cue for the next behavior. At the same time, it is important to not lose your criteria for each individual component of the chain.

The most salient part of this presentation, however, were two videos from a scientific research project of a dog responding to a "come" command that had been trained previously. In the first video, the dog had been trained to have a recall to a specific cue word using shaping and positive reinforcement. The dog worked with its tail up and wagging, head up, prancing happily and quickly around. The second video showed a dog who had been trained a recall using compulsion with a different word cue. The compulsion did not involve harsh correction, but rather collar pressure on a line pulling the dog to the trainer if it didn't respond. This dog worked slowly when it heard its cue word, with its head and tail down, looking visibly stressed and demotivated. Both dogs responded to their cue and came when called, but the behavior looked drastically different. The reveal at the end was that it was the same dog. It was a particularly moving example of the real differences between two training practices.

Of course, Karen Pryor was sitting directly behind me and Noodle during this presentation, so I became self-conscious about maintaining his good behavior and looking like I was a halfway competent trainer. :-) Fortunately, he was well mannered and calm again throughout the presentation, so he made me look good. I even got "tagged" (the token reward system used throughout the conference) by a fellow conference attendee for having such good dogs. Not something that I hear, say, when a stranger walks past our backyard fence, but they were pretending to be good fur-kids this weekend and I was very grateful!

As much as we wanted to catch the closing comments, we are also morning people who are at risk of turning into pumpkins before ten o'clock, so we decided to hit the road a little early. We packed into the car, grabbed some Red Bull, and headed home talking the whole way about how much fun we had, how inspired we were, and how excited we were to pursue new goals as trainers and dog owners. I feel new motivation and confidence in working with the dogs - I know I am following scientifically valid principles that not only work but build empathy and strengthen relationships in the process. I am feeling challenged to do my best in working both with the older dogs on some of their "rusty" spots, and in shaping my little Noodle into the best dog he can be. I'm excited and looking forward to the journey ahead.

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