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If you've ever seen a Sea World animal show, visited a zoo, or been lucky enough to see a show at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, you've seen clicker training in action. While in the marine mammal show, they use a whistle instead of a click, the premise is still the same. It's good old positive reinforcement training at work.
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I've been hearing from trainers who use punishment that not all dogs respond to things the same way. "What works for one dog doesn't necessarily work for another dog."
I've got news for ya. It all works the same way for every dog.
Reinforcement increases a behavior. Punishment decreases a behavior. Extinction eliminates a behavior. Period. End of story.
Now, what one dog considers reinforcement does change from dog to dog, just like it does from person to person. Here's a really good example from my own life. I've been struggling to find a way to increase the number of my physical workouts per week. I asked online for suggestions. I received a lot of "atta girls," "you look fine the way you are's," and "start slowly's."
But one guy wrote "Quit talking about it and just get your ass moving! Sitting on the computer ain't the way to lose it."
BINGO! That did it for me! For me, that comment was reinforcing. It increased my behavior of working out.
To some, however, it very well might have been a punisher -- it might have decreased the behavior of working out. So, what I find reinforcing and what someone else finds reinforcing might very well be two different things.
But a reinforcer is a reinforcer is a reinforcer. If behavior increases, a reinforcer is involved. Period. Done. Finished.
Quit talking about training and how every dog is different and just get out there and reinforce the behavior you like, for goodness sake. (Hey, it worked to increase my workouts, I'm trying to see if it works for other trainers, too.)
So what do 400+ dog trainers DO for three days in Chicago? Here at Clicker Expo in Chicago, those of us who didn't bring our dogs are glomming onto those 150 trainers who did bring dogs - we need our "doggie fix," after all.
We go to educational sessions on such topics as "Aggression Treatment and Context," "Microshaping," "What a Cue Can Do," and many more.
The topics are fascinating: how to prevent (imagine that!) a dog from becoming a reactive dog, how to build your dog's confidence, how to use games to teach your dog, how to improve your observation skills (so you can be a better teacher for your dog).
In addition to the education (which is tops!), we're also having fun getting reacquainted with one another, making new friends, and socializing.
As you might expect, when drifting through the crowd, the conversations revolve around dogs. And business. And occasionally some current events happening in the world - especially if dogs are involved, like the natural disasters in Japan.
It's a great escape from the real world for a few days, a chance to immerse myself into the science of dog training and behavior, and meet new friends!
Have you ever wanted to reward your dog for a job well done, but you didn't have any food with you? I'm spending the week at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL watching the trainers use play to pay their animals for good behavior.
A big part of Shedd's plan to use play as a reward is the building of strong relationships between trainer and animal. The trainers spend considerable time with each animal, finding out the different things that each animal really enjoys.
The video below shows Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium's VP of Animal Collections and Training, with four Beluga whales. Notice that at no point in the video does he use any food with the Belugas. He doesn't even use a clicker or any kind of marker. He's just working with the animals using play and "fun stuff" the Beluga's find reinforcing. Using this type of interaction is fun for both the person and the animal, and it build a strong relationship between the two.
That's not to say he never uses food as a reinforcer, but he also spends time working with the animals without food. You can see from the video how much the Beluga's (and the people) enjoy their training regardless of whether food is present! [Double-click the video below to see it on YouTube if the right-side of the video isn't viewable.]
I was in Denver, CO recently with the faculty of Karen Pryor Academy. We're all animal trainers and most of us work primarily with dogs. ALL of us are training junkies - we refer to ourselves as behavior geeks.
Imagine our delight when we got to go behind-the-scenes at the Denver Zoo. The handsome fella you see on the left is a gerenuk, a type of antelope. He's cooler than cool - check out his hips - they're jointed just like a human. Another cool fact: he never needs to drink water. Ever.
He's also untrainable.
Can't you tell? Doesn't he look untrained? At least, that's what the zookeepers all around the world thought.
This is the ONLY trained Gerenuk in the world. Gerenuks are very flighty. See those itty bitty skinny legs? They break very easily. Because the Gerenuk is so prone to panic and run into anything in their way, zookeepers have left these animals alone.
Well, that is until this zookeeper came along. Thank goodness she either didn't know Gerenuks were untrainable or didn't believe it -- this guy is VERY well trained and not the least bit flighty!
Check out some of the video here (double click the video if you can't see the right-hand part of the video here on the blog.
The trainer was patient and had a detailed training plan before she started with the Gerenuk. In the beginning, he really was quite frightened and couldn't handle having full view of his keeper or what was going on in his area. The ingenious trainer built a wooden door to fit over the stall door and initially interacted with the Gerenuk this way - so he couldn't see her.
Eventually she cut a small hole in the wooden door so he had a view, but it was strictly limited. She worked with him with that small hole until he was comfortable and relaxed with her presence and his very limited view. Over time, she was able to make the hole larger and larger until he was able to finally handle having a full view.
She worked incrementally with the Gerenuk, gaining his confidence and working only within his comfort level -- allowing him to dictate the speed of the training process. What she has today is an unflappable Gerenuk! We were able to feed him grapes, take pictures and videos, and he never once looked startled or frightened.
So the next time you think your dog is untrainable, remember the Gerenuk! Nothing is untrainable if you have patience and time...and the right reinforcer. This Gerenuk's favorite food is green (not red!) seedless grapes! [Don't feed your dog grapes - they're toxic!]
By the time this is published, I hope to be fast asleep on a Northwest Air jet, sleeping my way to Portland, OR. The dogs have been safely delivered to Lake Anna where they will vacation until I return. They probably won't even know I'm gone. Meanwhile I'm pining away without them.
I'm headed to a sold out Clicker Expo, where I'll be giving a talk to dog trainers. I'll also be learning. A LOT! Here is a sample of some of the talks at Clicker Expo:
Vexing Training Issues and What to Do About Them
Learning Games and Play for Dogs
Six Powerful Strategies Get You Through Training Blockages
Training that Heads Off Behavior Issues
Concept Training: Copycat? Copy Dog!
Punishment and the Public
I'll be bringing all the great ideas from Clicker Expo back with me. I'll also be Tweeting from the conference. Follow me on Twitter: @smartdogu
My personal New Year's Resolution has been to hit the 6:00a classes at my gym five days a week. I started before the new year and have been having some trouble meeting my goals. Last week it was because of the weather, this week it was because I had an early morning client. Whatever the reason, as soon as I miss a workout, I "fall off the wagon" because I've already screwed my goal up for the week. It's really easy to stay in my warm bed, snuggled up with Talos after I've already derailed my goal for the week.
After beating myself up for a day, I had a mini-revelation. Why don't I teach myself like I teach my dogs?!
A good dog trainer sets the dog up for success. A good trainer doesn't set unreasonable goals. A good trainer reinforces every behavior that gets the dog closer to the end goal.
What was I doing to myself? Punish, punish, punish. I'd say "I'm so lazy." "I already screwed this week up." "I'll never get this right." Another week or two of that and I'd give up on my goal completely.
I'm re-setting my goals so I've got a better chance of success. Instead of my goal being five days a week at the gym, I'm aiming for three days a week. If I get four or five days, that's fantastic, a bonus! But I'm much more likely to be able to get to the gym three days. I'm also instituting a reward schedule as well - when I hit my goal each week, I can buy a piece of workout gear. Or if I am successful two weeks in a row, I can schedule a massage. Both of those are worth working for!
After a month of success, I'll adjust my goal to four days a week. I will reach my goal of five days a week, hopefully by March.
But my chance of success is much higher this way and I'm much more likely to stick with this program than if I kept my unreasonable expectations. We're not much different, dogs and us. Make the task easy enough, the rewards valuable enough, and we can both accomplish just about anything!
There isn't any magic bullet to cure an aggressive dog. No secret elixir will transform a scaredy dog into a confident one. There isn't a pill you can give your dog to magically erase his fear.
However, recent advances in the study of canine biochemistry, medicine, and pharmacology has made it a whole lot easier for your aggressive, scared, or anxious dog to learn new habits.
Behavior modification along with medication can change a dog's life. Last weekend, I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist from the University of Pennsylvania.
Both veterinarians and trainers attended the lecture. It was especially gratifying to see so many veterinarians in the crowd. Many veterinarians don't know about the ways that drugs can help improve the quality of life of affected dogs because the subject of behavior is an elective at most veterinary schools.
The most effective way to modify the behavior of dogs with serious behavior problems can often be by combining drug therapy with behavior modification. An effective veterinarian-dog trainer team can make a significant difference in the prognosis of your dog.
If your dog is anxious, fearful, or aggressive, talk with your veterinarian or your trainer about teaming up to create a combined medical and training plan to help your dog live a fuller, more enjoyable life.
We teach our students to be skilled trainers and effective teachers using force-free methods. This is not just because we're nice (though we are), but because we understand the history and use of punishment in training, and we believe that Karen Pryor Academy's approach is more powerful in every meaningful dimension.
We believe that great teachers possess both a solid knowledge of the science that governs learning, and honed practical abilities in both training animals and teaching other people to train animals. We also believe in giving our graduates the skills to succeed in their profession. Our curriculum weaves best business practices together with best training practices, and we have innovative post-graduate programs that give our alumni continuing support for financial success.
Each Dog Trainer Academy consists of on-line learning as well as in-person, weekend-long workshops. Students bring their own dogs with them to the workshop to show off what they've learned. This weekend is an especially fun workshop: the students will be working with untrained dogs and their people, teaching basic good manners. It's fun for the dogs, the owners, the students, and for me - it's a really fun weekend.
It's not enough to know about dogs, to know about behavior. To be an effective trainer, you've got to be able to teach people. Too many trainers are in this profession because they love dogs. It's not enough to just love dogs. You must enjoy the people who are at the other end of the leash as well! And effectively communicate and teach the person. Without the person, we have no chance of helping the dog.
It's a fantastic - but exhausting - experience. I can't wait to catch my flight today and arrive in Dallas this evening. But, know too, how happy I'll be to get back here early Monday morning so I can see my own dogs and my husband!