Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Warning Sounds and Non-Reward Marking

In my last post I discussed reward marking. How telling your dog with sound, word or body that what he does at the moment will be reinforced can expedite training success.
Do we have an opposite to that? An equally helpful… non-reward marker? The good news is that, indeed, we do. The bad news, that it is not as simple as merely vocalizing disapproval with our dog’s action.
Expressing disagreement with someone’s actions is a deep-seated behavior, and the human choice word in English is “no”. I have a T-shirt with a print of a smiling, goofy looking, tongue-lolling-out dog, with its voice bubble saying: “Hi, my name is No-No Bad Dog. What’s yours?” Sadly that comes close to what I hear regularly in my line of work: many “nos” and a lot of very popular “tssts”. Articulations meant to warn the pooch that his behavior will surely be disciplined, corrected, punished – you choose your word cause it is all the same, so he’d better knock it off. NOW.
Even though the “no” and “tsst” are clearly indicating that unruly Rover is certainly NOT getting a reward, they are not considered NRMs, non-reward markers, precisely because the intent is to threaten the dog with a punitive consequence. Unlike NRMs, such warning sounds, other than perhaps giving the owner the illusion that he’s the pack’s leader, are useless. Useless, because typically an action that impresses the dog does not follow the warning, and if there is no consequence the dog doesn't change his behavior, learns to ignore the warning, and eventually will tune you out. The fact that most people “no” or “tsst” all the time, day in and day out, for the same misbehaviors, for the lifetime of the dog, is evidence that they’re ineffectively nagging.
Warnings do work when backed up with something that hurts or frightens the dog in a big way. Then, indeed, a verbal sound or shock collar tone might be all it takes to remind him to toe the line. But aversive consequences intense enough that it stops an unwanted action permanently is abuse, and has fallouts most owners don’t bargain for. The dog avoids the misbehavior, and by extension you and where he lives, or where the punishment took place. Your companionship is in the ditch; your dog resists you, might attack you, or if too intimidated redirect aggression against someone weaker. A dog who fears the power of hands, who feels conflicted and uncertain when his person approaches him, reaches and touches him, or whenever he opens his mouth cause it announces possible imminent pain, will not want to be a human’s faithful friend and working partner, and the owner is missing out on something beautiful he could have had.

The purpose of a NRM is not to warn the dog that something unpleasant will happen, but like the reward marker is meant to strengthen your relationship. It does that by giving the dog clarity with a precise piece of sound information, many trainers like “oops”, that tells him that what he is doing at the moment will not yield a payoff and he’d better think of an alternate behavior to gain access to the resource he is after. So, the fundamental difference between “no” or “tsst” and “oops” is that the end result is not a punishment, but a reward, and with the NRM you’re helping your dog get it.
The Law of Operant Conditioning states that any behavior ignored will become extinct, so couldn’t we just ignore the dog’s unwanted behavior and wait till he comes up with the right one on his own? Patiently let him self-learn what pleases us; what causes us to release the resource he wants and we have control over? We could, and in fact some trainers argue that ignoring is better than non-reward marking, but in my opinion, a clear directional when the dog needs it can decrease frustration and increase attention. To understand when your dog really needs information and then give it, or when self-learning is better, can be a bit tricky and takes practice, but is the fine nuance between good, and fabulous dog training.
Ideally, be attuned to your pooch and apply both, with the caveat not to overuse reward and non-reward marking. Micromanaging can lead to a dog who becomes perpetually dependent on some sort of sound that tells him how to function; he operates purely mechanically and might disconnect from you.
In addition, non-stop noise is annoying. A friend and colleague shared with me a story she heard at a lecture with Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Kathy Sdao. During a training session with dolphins, in which she used a NRM as information, one of the aquatic mammals became so irritated that he threw the speaker out of the water. He knew exactly where the constant clatter came from, and so does your dog, and you never want to be perceived as an irritant to be avoided or get rid of.
If the dolphin was that frustrated with simply getting information, can you imagine the impact constant warning sounds have on an animal? If you decide to give non-reward marking a go, ensure that you don’t use a word that was a threat in the past your dog has learned to ignore or fear. That word is spoiled and you need a new one. “Ah” works for me, but if you used “ah”, or a sound close in tone as a warning before, try “oops”, or “oh-oh”, or whatever falls naturally on your tongue. It doesn’t matter what you say, important is how your dog perceives it. How he should perceive an NRM is: “Mom says I’m barking up the wrong tree – better do something else to secure the loot.”
Trainer and author Gail Fisher, who calls the NRM Lost Opportunity Marker or LOM, uses a visual signal. She turns her head. Averting the head is also part of a dog’s natural communication and signals that he’d rather not deal with the situation; that he is worried, or not granting audience. Although I really like the subtleness of body language, the head turn obviously only works if the dog is watching you while being baaad. And I see another problem. Because it is dog-speak and expresses avoidance, I wonder how he’d perceive my head turn? Disengagement, displeasure, disinterest in further interactions? If that is the case, the LOM changes from informative to aversive – back to a warning. Even though no real punishment ever follows, but a reward once the dog changes his behavior, a sensitive pooch, for example one who was treated harshly and is shell-shocked, or a very timid one like our Will, could lose the courage to work and connect with that person right away. For that reason, I rather stick to my neutral “ah”, and if I want to add a visual signal I shake my head, cause that is not natural to dogs and my intention can’t be misconstrued.
After you tell your dog with an NRM that he’s strutting the wrong trail, should you use a command that tells him what he should be doing instead?
Gail Fisher gives the dog a second chance right away and cues the desired behavior. She explained that she does so because she aims for immediate command response, but also because she wants to keep the dog in the game; prevent that he gives up if he feels that the window of opportunity to earn the reward closes for good.
For the most part, I like to give my dog some 20-30 seconds to think of a way to get the booty, thereby combining information with self-learning.

You can play around with cuing or waiting, verbal or visual, as long as you remember the two fixed and crucial aspects: the information you give your dog should never be threatening but assisting, and your dog’s next best behavior has to be reinforced, rewarded, and ideally with what he wants at the moment. Then the NRM becomes one more tool that helps make you and your dog an awesome team.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Clicker and Reward Marking

If you’ve been following my posts, you might have noticed that I believe that positive reinforcement done right, combined with non-punitive, brainy leadership is the fasted way to a reliably well-behaved dog – regardless of dog or problem behaviors. I don’t compromise on that, and luckily don’t have to even when my clients want to pursue group training I don’t offer anymore, cause in my neck of the woods are several like-minded trainers whose philosophy latch hand-in-paw with mine - and if you want to know who they are, email me.
Most of them are clicker trainers, and the common believe is that we all are; that positive reinforcement is synonymous with clicker training. But that is not so. There are some who apply the method without the clicker. I am one of them.
On that note, one could assume that, because the clicker concept in itself is incompatible with punishments, that all clicker trainers apply the reward-based method exclusively, but that is also not so. Some are incorporating the trendy gadget more as a calculated PR move than authentically shifting away from compulsion and correction training – so something to be aware of.

In case you have no clue what I am talking about, let me explain the clicker briefly. It is a small sound making device that marks the exact moment when the dog performs a desirable behavior, which gives the person a few seconds to hand over the real reward, which, with clicker trainers, is often a food treat. In other words, the clicker is a communication tool, with the sound clarifying to the dog that she’ll be paid for the brilliant thing she just did.
Why is reward marking with a clicker important for the layowner? Or is it? Should he even pay attention to such a technical detail?
In my opinion, reward marking is ├╝ber-handy when shaping a new fancy trick, capturing a funky body movement, and in the beginning stages of teaching a new task. It can really speed things up, because the dog is not ambiguous what the bulls-eye action is. That is especially true if a frisky dog switches from one behavior to another quickly, or if the human is a tad slow in handing over the paycheck. So, a clicker makes a lot of sense if the correct moment is important but fleeting, cause it helps the dog to understand what exactly it is you are after.
A clicker can also be helpful for an owner eager to change from the traditional choke and jerk training method to positive reinforcement. Habitually used to notice the mistakes a dog makes so he can correct them, a clicker forces him to shift his focus to what his pooch is doing correctly which, of course, is the idea behind positive reinforcement training: teaching the dog a repertoire of behaviors that please us she can use to elicit what pleases her.
But in day-to-day life, or whenever you want prolonged connection and behavior duration, the clicker can actually present a hurdle.
For example, what I regularly see is an owner sending the pooch to her mat with the intent that she chills for a bit. The dog typically complies and lies on the mat alright, but instead of relaxing, tensely expects to be clicked and rewarded and, because she’s learned that the sound ends the exercise, self-releases right after. Not every trainer teaches that the click signals the end of the exercise, many of my friends don’t, but others do, and when they do, position duration stays with a dog who anticipates instant gratification can become difficult. If the click doesn’t manifest when expected, the dog becomes frustrated and fidgety, barky or whiny, and if it does, it is the dog’s cue that she can leave the mat and do what she wants, which often is returning to the behavior the owner sent her to the mat for in the first place.
We have similar problems regarding coming when called and eye contact. The recalled dog typically returns to her person, but doesn’t hang close for long and splits as soon as she’s received the click‘n’cookie, and rather than prolonged eye contact and true connection, the owner gets an automated quick glimpse. Eye contact attention is such a natural behavior for dogs that can so easily be fostered, that it is a shame to teach it as a trick, an artificial exercise.
I am also not convinced that a clicker is particularly useful in behavior modification. Here is my thing: if my imaginary three-year-old child is hyped to watch her favorite TV show, and I tell her to do something else first, and she does, and then I click her, fetch cookies and milk and then turn on the TV, would that decrease her anxiety, or would she be annoyed with the delay? Following that thought, if my fearful of dogs pooch stays calm and attentive to me when she sees another dog, the sensible and effective reward is to increase the distance to the other dog immediately, not to click, treat and then walk away.
Because kids are humans, it is easy for us to get what they want; with dogs that can be a little harder to figure out, especially for the more inexperienced rookie owner. There is a risk that the beginner clickerer focuses too much on the device, and not enough on what the dog’s motivators are. Yet, taking the time and interest to find out what drives the dog pays off, cause if she associates her person as the facilitator, her bond and connection increases, and with it obedience. The best behaved dogs are the ones whose individual and species-specific needs are understood and met.

Dogs, by virtue of their species, are very attuned to us and expert readers of our body and verbal communication signals. Dog owners, since forever, inadvertently or deliberately convey with a “good dog”, or a nod, when they’re pleased with their pooch’s behavior. The problem that delays training success is that many people stop with the praise, believing that to be good enough a reward. But if you follow it with a for your dog desirable consequence, your verbal “attaboy” or “yes”, your smile and gooey way you look at her, becomes a natural reward marker.
Clicker proponents argue that consistency is lost when we use our self to tell our dog that exactly this or that is what we want to see again, and yes, that is possible. And yes again, consistency is crucial in scientific studies, and important in our relationship with dogs and really anything we do in life, but I doubt that when I tell my dog with emotion, words and gestures how happy I am with her performance, that I adversely impact her future behavior. In addition, non-clicker reward marking might not be inconsistent at all. We all have an intrinsic and subconscious, yet habitual way in which we express ourselves that our dogs are, or at least should be, able to interpret.
A clicker-conditioned dog doesn’t have to observe the owner. I want my dogs to observe me. Our dogs connect the dots between their behavior, our human-typical responses, and what happens next. If we involve ourselves in a positive way, they’ll be wanting more of us. It is that voluntary, deeper connection I want to foster, and not an artificial approval signal.

Before clicker aficionados jump me, if you are successful with it, of course continue. If you and your dog are a team, and everything is cool, don’t change. And if you are looking for trainer, don’t rule her out because she clicks.
But if you feel that you and your pooch are stuck somewhere, it is not because you’re not correcting enough, or because she is dumb, defiant or dominant, but perhaps because she is on autopilot like a Skinner rat, and you might wanna rethink some aspects how you relate with her.
And you owners who embrace positive reinforcement but not the clicker, don’t worry that you're doing things wrong. Think KISS and Keep It Simple, Stupid. Use your voice and body to tell her how brilliant she is, and how happy you are that you partnered up; but do tell, and reinforce the desired actions with something she really wants, and you’ll be applying the reward marking concept very effectively.

Maybe, by promoting the clicker as one of the wonderful tools available to us, instead of the only or best one, more people might embrace positive reinforcement as the sole way to raise, teach and live with their canine companion.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Voice-4-Dogs Group and Beating Winter Boredom

I am one of those lucky people who live their passion, and believe me, I am grateful. Each morning I release a non-denominational thank you into the universe for being able to create a life I love.
When I work with dogs, I never have a bad day. Dogs enthrall me, even when their behaviors are challenging. I also take pleasure working with their humans. They, at least most of them, are genuinely devoted to their pooch and want to include and enjoy him as a member of the family. My job is to help them achieve that.
Typically I meet with dog and his social group in their home, sort out what underlies the behaviors that are problematic, and then counsel how to improve and change them. A little like the guy on TV, except my method is opposite to his. I whisper. And I listen to what the dog needs, cause when the situation works for the dog he’s happy, and happy dogs make their owners happy. Anyway, what I really want to talk about in this post is my on-line group, a question one member posted recently, and the feedback she received.

As any therapist will attest, and above-mentioned TV guy now concedes, there are no quick fix solutions for deep-seated problems and relationship hiccups. Knowing that, I want to stay in touch with my clients after a consultation to offer continuous support. Once I evaluated dog and situation, effective support can happen in many ways, one of which is via computer. For that reason I created, a few years ago, a clients’ exclusive, by invitation only, on-line group. It’s a win-win venue: my clients get free-of-charge help, and I can stay connected without investing more time than I have. My vision is that it evolves into a forum where every person who ever booked a consultation with me joins, finds it welcoming, and uses it to have questions answered and concerns addressed, or yap about their successes, or start a discussion about a dog-related topic that interests them, or maybe feel less alone when they realize that others have dog issues, too.
I want it to be a place where everyone feels respected and respects others, where they look for valuable information, or sometimes just for confirmation that sticking to positive reinforcement is the right thing to do. That is important in an environment flooded with autocratic and punitive advice. Some of my clients feel downright pressured to defend their method against friends and neighbors that, although meaning to he helpful, suggest that all their dog needs is a good whack with the garden hose across the snout.
We’re getting there. A number of my clients joined up, and even if not actively participating, read the discussions and then email me privately, but several others are quite active and share their thoughts and insights.
Normally I don’t blog about stuff that’s happening in the group, but one member posted a question recently I think will resonate with many owners who, like her and I, are not winter outdoorsy enthusiasts, but are owned by an industrious canine used to a certain level of entertainment.
I’d be perfectly fine caved in between December and April with good books, my laptop, fatty dairy foods and Mexican hot chocolate, but, especially Will whose favorite pastime is going for long hikes that include trailing, is not agreeable to that. So, like in any good relationship, we compromise. The winter common ground that works for all of us is spending about an hour outside, and increasing fun activities inside.
And that’s what the group member was inquiring about: what to do with her, what else, Border collie on days when walks are rather short.
Of course, if she’d be really keen, she could teach him 1,022 proper nouns and a little grammar, like John W. Pilley did with his dog Chaser (http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/01/18/science/1248069571561/a-dog-nouns-and-verbs.html).
Considering that 82-year-old Mr. Pilley, a retired psychologist, still spends 4-5 hours each day working with Chaser, a more realistic variation that probably works better for most owners is to teach the pooch the names of the toys in her toy box. Your dog has a toy box, right? If she brings the correct one, you play with her for a little bit, if not, you send her back to try again. A notch up is to teach her to clean up at end of your interaction together; to bring all toys back to the box.
You can also hide a toy somewhere in the house for your dog to find. That’s what a member who commented did to entertain her frisky terrier cross. She asked her dog into a sit stay, and yes, practicing position stays is a nice side effect of find-games, and hid the toy in another room. In the beginning, she said, at a fairly obvious place, which is key, cause if the task is too difficult the dog loses interest and disengages, or becomes frustrated and acts frantically, instead of methodically. In typical terrier fashion her dog progressed quickly, and soon even tracked her person’s position by sound, which induced her to incorporate double backing and diversions into the game to keep it challenging enough. That’s one of the reasons why I am fascinated by dogs – they are teaching as much as they are learning.
The terrier owner would always accompany her pooch after she released her to search for the toy, in case she needed little hints. That is also something we do. When I hide Davie and Will’s ball or treats, I give them cues similar to the hot-and-cold ones young children might get. “Wrong”, when they are off course, educes eye contact, and when I have their attention I signal with my hand, arm and eyes in which direction they should be heading. Although they don't comprehend left and right, they do know the verbal cues forward, over and halt, which I apply if they're really lost. As they zone in, I staccato-like repeat find-find-find in a higher pitched voice, which keeps them nosing in that area until they find the loot.
Finding hidden objects seems to be the common theme for indoor fun. World-renowned behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar plays scent games with his dogs, explained in Cesar Millan’s newest book “Cesar’s Rules”. No need to run out to buy a copy though. In my opinion, there isn’t much in it that’ll better behavior and strengthen the human/dog relationship. But Dunbar’s section in the book is great. He says that it is important, when you start up, to let the dog find something he is motivated by. Then, once he is hooked on the game, one can incorporate other scents the dog feels indifferent about. But first the game has to make sense for him.
Another thing that Dunbar said is to be careful not to overload on the scent, to prevent that it lingers everywhere and confuses the dog. That means that if you plant a Kong, you might not want to stuff it with last week’s leftover fish scraps. But I wouldn’t use kibble either. I am all for the “work-for-meals” program, but also believe that food is a basic need a dog has a right to. So, at least half of his daily amount should be free. My recommendation is to fill Kongs and other interactive toys with delectable, nutritious treats, including good-for-the-dog human food, and then deduct that from his kibble ration to avoid that Fido becomes pudgy.
Food is a great motivator for most dogs, and for some more desired than toys. That’s the case with another group member who replied. She hands her pooch a stuffed Kong each day, but, to make it more challenging and entertaining, ties it tightly into an old T-shirt. A variation of that is tying small treats into the clothy shell of a squeaky the dog massacred, and then hiding it. Or you could put a cookie underneath a cup towel and see if your dog can figure out where it is. Do it right in front of her. You might be surprised that she has no clue where the booty is, even if she watched you place it under the towel a second ago. Neither one mine figured it out - and gave me a rare moment when I felt intellectually superior to them.
That food-driven dog, although not interested in toys, is motivated by social closeness, which means that the humans in her family are a reward in their own right. That is fabulous - being with her people should be high on every dog’s wish list. During an off-leash outing, the owner periodically sidesteps off the path and plays people search. Interestingly, our first tracking instructor starts rookie dogs on people as well, not objects or scents, because finding the owner drives dogs most, sets them up for success, and gets them keened on the game. Tracking was what tired our ever-ready Davie out more than herding, and Will, an incredible scout, still loves it more than any other activity. As a variant, I often let a mitten fall, carry on walking for some 40-50 feet, alert Will and ask her to find it. Regardless how absorbed she is in animal tracks or whiffs in the environment, a high-pitched “oh-oh”, short for: oh-oh-I-am-such-a-fool-and-lost-something-again, never fails to veer her focus instantaneously to me, and then I show her the other mitten, name it, and she darts off in an attempt to locate the lost one. So you see, one way to make shortened outside time more tiring is to make it more meaningful and stimulating. On that note, we do follow animal tracks in the snow as well; the three of us explore where they lead us, see where the bunny lives.
That same dog still, the one who receives a Kong tied in a towel and whose person plays people search, is 10 years old and was adopted from the Metro SPCA. Seemingly not treated kindly by her previous humans, she really lucked out with her present family. Not only does she have caring and committed adult persons, but also kids that take an interest in her, practice obedience commands and teach her new tricks. Teaching tricks is a wonderful way for children to interact with a dog. It is a calm, brainy activity, yet stimulating and tiring, and the dog learns playfully that young humans are in charge, too. The on-line stores www.dogwise.com and www.mungosbooks.com have a great selection of tricks books, some specifically targeted to children.
Not so brainy a game is “chase and catch prey”, something another group member came up with to busy her young Australian shepherd.
Australian shepherds are dogs that I wouldn’t categorize as the couch potato kind. They are clever and full of zip, especially when they are young, but for a long, long time into adulthood as well. And they’re not of the aloof kind either; not disconnected from their humans happily amusing themselves. They don’t exist well in the periphery of their human’s life, but, on the contrary, perpetually seek to take center stage. That group member’s pup was no exception, and when boredom became unbearable she would shove a toy underneath a piece of furniture and scratch, paw and bark at it, desperately trying to get her person’s attention. Luckily, her owner interpreted the nuisance behavior accurately and didn’t scold, but played with her.
Instead of hiding the toy, she tied it at the end of a long, light rope and dragged it, encouraging the pooch to chase and pounce, and letting her catch it every so often. I like it. Chase ‘n’ catch is physical and instinctual, yet structures and channels that natural drive and puts it under human control. The dog gets to do something very satisfying, but at the same time learns to release what’s between her teeth into her person’s hand - and she learns that willingly and eagerly because only giving it up will continue the interaction. Because there is an actual object to be caught, it is not mindless like the idiotic laser chase that often turns a dog into a light addict who obsessively fixates and attacks anything that flickers, including the TV and light sparkling through blinds.
Besides the toy, this owner also dragged an empty water bottle tied in a sports sock. She said that her Aussie liked to crunch plastic, and the sock made the noise tolerable for human ears. Plus I’d worry about splitting plastic injuring the dog’s gums, so tied in a sock prevents that, too.
More by chance than intent, she did once discover something that kept her young Australian self-entertained for about an hour. It was a lemon that fell out of the fridge that mesmerized the cavorting canine enough that she forgot to pester her human for a while. Brilliant. A lemon is cheap, soft so won’t mark furniture, and a dog likely won’t eat it. Just in case, I’d still get an organic one.
Methinks the reason why the lemon worked was because it was a completely novel item, and it came from the typically forbidden human food storage place, which made it doubly interesting for the dog to explore, and possibly walk away with. Temple Grandin, in “Animals Make us Human”, explains that one new toy or stimulus each day activates an animal’s seeking system, decreases anxiety and increases wellbeing. A new stimulus a day doesn’t mean you have to buy a new toy every day. You could rotate the ones you already have, “accidentally” drop a lemon, or sneak one surprise treat somewhere in your dog’s toy box.
When a dog gives me signals that she is bored, I much rather interact with her right away, instead of waiting until she is a total pain in the you know where. Often a few minutes of quality interaction will do, and I hope you found a few useful ideas here. Even though almost every North American groundhog predicted an early spring, I am sure there’ll be a few weeks of winter left for you and your hairy sidekick to have some inside fun.