Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Emotional Bank Accounts: Neutral is Not Enough

This weekend, on one of the most beautiful days of the spring we've had so far, Lowell, Maebe, Fate, and I had paused at the side of a popular multi-use pathway in a well-traveled city park by our home in the middle of a mid-day run.  Fate and I were standing well off the trail, she was on leash and right at my side sniffing some grass when a roughly 50 year old man dressed in running clothes (yet presumably also under the influence of drugs or alcohol while out for some exercise) came running down the trail and rushed straight at Fate and I as he hurled threats and obscenities at us and physically threatened to kick Fate, coming within inches of us.  He continued his verbal assault at the top of his lungs as he continued to run down the path out of sight and earshot.  It was jarring, to say the least, and mostly Lowell and I stood there in disbelief.  I tried to not let the experience wreck my lovely day, and for the most part I succeeded.

The next morning though, as we were walking the dogs along the path again, I felt myself become irritated as I saw two female runners approach.  When we pass other trail users, we as a rule cue our dogs to step off the trail and stand to the side to let them go by.  I did this as always, but this time I felt a twinge of resentment and reluctance to share the path with a runner and felt myself wishing they weren't there.

On today's walk, we were passed on the road by a runner bearing roughly the same demographic profile as the man who threatened us, and I felt myself have a physiologic fear response as my sympathetic nervous system was activated, and I automatically clutched the leash to pull Fate closer to me.  Of course, like the vast majority of runners, this man simply wished us a good morning as he passed.

What went through my mind as I observed this involuntary reaction on my part was how many stories I hear from owners who can point to a pivotal scary event that impacted their dog's behavior in response to a certain trigger, whether it be other dogs, the veterinarian, cars, or toe nail clippers.

Lowell is a runner.  I am a runner.  Heck, we were on a run at the time.  We run with our friends, also runners.  One of our favorite weekends of the year every year is a three-day running event.  I encounter runners just about every time I leave the house.  Overwhelmingly the encounters range from neutral, to (perhaps even more often) friendly and cordial.  I usually have pretty good perspective and coping skills in general, but even with that healthy "bank account" of good experiences built up, I am having a temporary negative conditioned emotional response right now.  So, why do we expect it would be any different for our dogs?  And what if I didn't have that history of positive associations?  What if this was the first runner I had encountered, or the first time I'd gone to that park?  What if I had encountered a high proportion of other unfriendly runners in the past?

I hear owners all the time dismiss the importance of continuing to create positive associations and good experiences because their dog is "fine" with people, dogs, handling, noises, etc.  I tell them neutral is not enough - I want the dogs to LOVE these things.  I want them to work on building that bank account and creating the most resilient dog that they can.

Because the fact is, sometimes unpleasant things out of our control happen.  Even the best practices and habits can't prevent everything, and if we want to live our lives and let our dogs do the same, we are always running that risk.  The event this weekend happened on a popular multi-use path at a prime time of day on a gorgeous weekend when people were out and about.  We were minding our own business and had not been engaging the runner/assailant in any way.  The only way we could have reliably prevented that encounter would have been to sit in our living room on a beautiful spring morning and hide away from the world outside.  Which of course is no way to live.

I'll recover, because I know that overall the world and people are generally pleasant.  My genetic predisposition and past history tells me so, but still I'll appreciate every friendly runner who passes me with a wave and smile and helps remind me of that in the coming days.  And as for Fate - she's fine.  She wasn't touched and she barely noticed a thing.  Clearly her bank account is bigger than mine!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Things My Parrot Is Teaching Me About Dog Training #1

Probably anyone who has come within the slightest contact with me in the last six months knows that we have recently added some feathered family members to the household.  The first of these was Presto, a Congo African Grey parrot who we rescued from the Humane Society of Huron Valley in November when he was surrendered along with 40+ other birds in a hoarding case.  I've been enjoying living with and training a new species, and while Presto has spurred a growing obsession with all things ornithological, he's also helping me appreciate the art of animal training in general.

Presto and I have been working on a cup stack trick where the ultimate goal will be for him to stack multiple nesting cups.  I began by first shaping him to pick up a small cup and give it to me.  I then began presenting the larger cup underneath the small cup when he would pick it up, and mark/reward when he let go and the small cup fell into the large one.  I am now at the stage where I want him to make some effort to get the small cup in the right location, so I am holding the large cup in place (to make it easier to hit) and am rewarding for dropping the small cup so it at least hits the large cup - I'm not worried right now about it nesting correctly.  I'm holding the large cup next to the small one so he really just needs to turn his body a bit to drop his cup correctly.  My goal is for him to make some intentional effort to get the cup in the right spot, and rely less on my help (but as you will see, I do fall back on "helping" more than I want to).

When I am shaping behaviors, my goal is to as much as possible be striving for "error-free learning" where I am upping the criteria so gradually that the learner is able to make continual progress with minimal mistakes made and a very high rate of reinforcement throughout.  However, I have found myself getting a little bit stuck with this exercise in figuring out how to raise criteria enough so that we are progressing, but not so much that he starts making repeated mistakes.  I find that is the real art of shaping - splitting that criteria just right.

I've probably had a couple sessions too many in a row where I've messed up this balance - raised criteria too much, resulting in his frustration after repeated mistakes, and then my compensating by lowering criteria again to help him be successful.  So we've pretty much established a trick of him lifting the cup, me placing the other one below it, and then him dropping it onto the large cup.  I think we both felt a bit stuck in this exercise, and last night Presto, rather hilariously, showed me he was bored with it.  No doubt, dogs get frustrated/confused/bored too when our training gets stale or unclear, and they might begin throwing new behaviors out, but Presto tends to do it with flair.  I swear he has a sense of humor, and if he gets bored with something, it is as if he is showing me something he thinks is more fun instead.

In the video, you will see him offer a behavior I have never seen before at all, which struck me as actually a little bizarre - and pretty funny.  You might also be able to guess what his current favorite trick is - one I did a better job training so has a higher reinforcement history and therefore is a lot more fun for him.  Now I need to get that one under better stimulus control, clearly!


How often do we do this same thing with our dogs?   In our determination to "fix" our dog's weave poles, contact performance, heel position, etc., don't we sometimes drill the exercise to death until both the dog and we become bored and cranky by the very idea of it?  Sometimes the best thing I think we can do is set things aside, do something else for a while, and come back with a fresh approach to make the activity new again.  I know I had gotten into a rut in recent months with my dogs, just working on the same sets of behaviors over and over.  With our new approach to keeping things interesting, I literally am drawing a couple behaviors out of a jar each day now, and working on those.  In the last couple weeks we've worked on components of formal retrieves, agility, treibball, and basic good manners, and I think we are all finding it much more interesting.

I think we will put the cups away for a few days.  (And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that I might next try using an even larger cup as the destination cup, so he is more likely to be successful with less intervention from me.  We can then scale back down to the red cup over time.  But that's not for today . . .)