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 . . .)

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