Monday, March 27, 2017

How To Use The Clicker

I had a reader ask a great question about clicker training.  She wants to know what can be done with the clicker.  Can it be used to train the dog to stay out of a room or off the bed?

A Clicker Never Makes Bad Behavior Disappear


To give a good answer, I need to start with some training education.  In training speak, there are a couple of important words.  These are "reinforcement" and "punishment".  Reinforcement is anything that is done which makes a dog more likely to repeat a behavior.  Punishment is anything that is done which makes the dog less likely to repeat the behavior.

The clicker is a signal to the dog that a treat is coming.  It is a signal to the dog of the message "Thats Right!" delivered at the instant of the right behavior.  The clicker is a reinforcer.  It does not and cannot make any behavior less likely.

The original question contained two specific examples: 1) stay out of a room  2) stay off the bed.  I only have room and time for one example.

Stay Off The Bed

The reason the dog is going onto the bed is because it is comfortable...same reason you get on the bed.  Other reasons might be to be close to the owner.  In this example, the clicker can be somewhat useful, but its usefulness is a bit limited.

The dog can be trained to do an incompatible behavior.  If the dog is given a comfortable dog bed nearby, a "go to your spot" command can be trained.  If the dog is on his bed, he cannot be on yours.  The act of going to his bed is incompatible with jumping on yours. 

You might start by tossing treats onto the bed and clicking when the dog gets to the bed.  You'd do 10 tosses, and 10 clicks.  Next day, repeat the exercise, but put the command first, before you toss the treat.  Day 3, toss 6 treats as before, with the command.  For treats 7-10, do a fake toss.  When the dog hits the bed, click and deliver the treat.  Over the course of the next few days, ease into all fake tosses and no actual treats.  Also fade into no fake tosses.

At this point, you have a behavior where the dog will go to his bed.  The question is, though, what will the behavior be if you are not around to give the command and to give the treat?  Each dog is different.  Once dog may understand that you are pleased with him on his bed, and forgo getting onto your bed.  Other dogs may find the comfort and smell of your bed too great.  Some dogs may not even choose to leave your bed, because the comfort of your bed is a better reward than the treat you are offering.

If your dog still chooses to get onto the bed after learning this new behavior, the only option left is to punish the "getting on the bed behavior".  Some options for punishment:

  1. Scat Mat.  A scat mat is a vinyl mat that can deliver a static charge when touched.
  2. Place an office chair runner with the carpet points pointing up on the bed.  Note that this might need to be anchored to the bed as a smart dog will pull it off.
  3. If you google "Gary Wilkes Bonker", you will learn a novel approach to punishment which might be useful here.  The essence of this is to swat the dog on top of the head with a rolled towel.  This is more hands on and runs the same risk of the dog not being punished when you are not around to do the punishing.  A combination of "bonker" and chair runner might be the best combination of punishment.
What this might look like:  You are laying on your bed and the dog comes up uninvited.  You swat the dog on the head with the bonker.  As you are swatting, you command the dog "Go to your spot".  Once the dog gets to his bed, you click and treat and generally throw a big party for the dog.  Next time, take note of the dog.  If the dog goes to his spot of his own volition, without jumping on the bed and without being told, again you click and treat and throw a big party for the dog.  That dog may yet jump on the bed when you are not around.  If that is the case, then the chair runner would be the best fix for that.

What I particularly like about the above plan is that it starts with showing the dog the correct and expected behavior.  Only then is punishment used to eliminate the offending behavior.  When punishment is applied, the dog can be shown the correct behavior and be rewarded for choosing it.  Too often, we punish our dogs for bad behavior without showing them what good behavior looks like.  Think of it this way: how long would you keep at a job if you had to learn the job solely by being told what you do wrong?  This would be a horrible existence, yet this is the world of far too many of our dogs.  Show the dog the right behavior first.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Force Free Dog Training: Start With A Puppy

One thing that you can do to make any force free dog training activity easier is to start with a puppy.

Some time ago, I was asked how I would go about force free dog training a recall.  As I started to write this up, I quickly realized that this would take several installations.  Long text just doesn't work on the internet.  Its the internet age...we all have short attention spans...Ooo!  Squirrel!

Teaching recall, or really any force free dog training tends to be easier with a puppy.  Can it be done with an older dog?  Sure!  But with an older dog, it *might be* complex and *may* turn into a very long slog.

With a puppy, you have a blank slate.  The dog has no prior experiences and has formed no prior associations.  The trainer can then form the associations between behaviors and consequences.  with an older or adult dog, these same associations may have already been formed, and in a way that is contrary to what you want to see.

Let me try to explain by example.

By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK (My wifes dog running to the sea....) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bolting Dog
You have an adult dog who bolts out the front door and runs the neighborhood.  This behavior did not happen in a vacuum.  At some point in time, the little rebel decided to release himself on his own recognizance.  Maybe there was a squirrel in the front yard.  Maybe the dog has a lot of run in him.  Who knows.  But what we do know is that that first time he did that, he had a lot of fun.  He got to explore.  He got to chase squirrels, birds and rabbits.  Anything novel is a big reward for a dog, so the newness of it all was great fun.  Plus the game of chase was a hoot.  And every time the dog bolts, the same level of fun is encountered.

The dog has an association between bolting and fun and freedom.  Since bolting continues to be fun, it is a behavior which rewards itself.

A Blank Slate
Now consider a puppy.  The pup has not bolted.  He has never explored the neighborhood.  In fact, if the pup is quite young, the front yard might be scary.  The dog has formed no association between bolting and fun.

Anytime you enter into force free dog training, you help the dog create an association between a behavior and a consequence.  If the dog already has an association, then the new consequences you provide have to be better and bigger than the results he already knows.  The dog must not be allowed to get that result any more, all the while providing a new result that is really good.  The dog has to "unlearn" the old association while learning the new one.  The unlearning part is what can be a long journey.

But with a puppy, there is no unlearning stage.  All that is required is to create the association you want the dog to remember.

So, as you venture into a reduced force or force free dog training plan, try to do it with a puppy.  It will make your job and the dog;'s job a lot easier.  If your little rebel is all grown up, just prepare yourself for the possibility of a long training journey.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day: The Greenest Food Is The Food You Harvest Yourself

On Earth Day, I like to celebrate by eating meat and veggies which I have harvested myself.  The wild turkeys have not gotten on board yet this spring, so this Earth Day, it will be a pheasant stir fry.  I've written on this before, but a lot of people do not realize that the "greenest" meat you can eat is meat you hunted and harvested yourself.

Think about it: The supermarket chicken or beef that you consume has been bred to produce more meat.  It has been injected with all sorts of stuff to improve yield.  The profit margin on things like pork and chicken is so small that farmers grow these animals in huge barns stuffed to the gills with animals.  Your beef may have been raised in Texas and shipped to Maine or Alaska or Washington.

In contrast, the deer or turkey you shoot is living wild and free until the moment you shoot it.  It lives on fresh feed.  Fossil fuels were not burned to feed it, butcher it, or ship it to a market near you.  Hunted meat is the ultimate "green" meat.

Having said that, if I had to live on meat that I hunted, I would get very hungry.  Sure, a lot of my meat is hunted, but I just don't have the time to get out and hunt as much as I would like to.

If you are like me and can't get out and hunt and fish as much as you would like...or maybe hunting and fishing are not your thing, there are other things you can do to be "more green" this Earth Day.

1) Shop your local farmers market.


Meat and veggies in these markets did not travel from South America to get to your plate.  They traveled from an adjacent county.  Also, honestly, these markets are a lot of fun.

2) Grow your own food


In a 4 foot by 8 foot garden bed, you can plant enough tomatoes, peppers, and onions to keep you in fresh salsa all late summer and fall.  With a small investment, canning your salsa is pretty easy and can make your harvest last until next year.  A small garden is really quite easy.  If you are space limited, you could grow a lot of things in pots on a deck.

Every morsel of food that is grown in your back yard is something that is not processed, packaged, and shipped.

3) Buy a hunting or fishing license


Do this even if you don't choose to hunt or fish.  Money collected from license sales is directed back into conservation efforts.  These conservation efforts are not limited to improving hunting and fishing options.  The projects more often than not directly benefit non-game species.  Additionally, habitat improvements which target game species will help non-game species as well.

Partaking in just one of the above is huge.  All three, and you are entitled to the badge of smugness reserved for Prius drivers.  Enjoy your Earth Day.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Your Dog Is Overweight: Recognizing Obesity In Dogs

Yes, your dog is overweight.  How do I know?  OK, I really don't.  However, I have found far too many people who really don't have a clue what an overweight dog looks like.

On more than one occasion, people have looked at my dog and offered comments like, "Looks a little thin", "Too skinny", or "a little anemic".  For those of you who have yet to meet Shiloh, let me describe him.  Because of genetics (and nothing to do with me), he is trim, athletic and well muscled.  Every description I've read has him at an ideal weight.

Another story: Went to a friend's house to help him remodel. I was greeted by his pups, who I hadn't see in a while.  Each dog was slightly overweight and I told the owner as much.  Slightly offended, the reply was that they had just come from the vet and given a clean bill of health.

By VinnieRattolle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This Dog Is Overweight
 One more: A good friend took one of her dogs to the vet.  She knew that the dog needed to lose a bit of weight.  when the vet proclaimed that the dog's weight was just fine, my friend called out the vet.  Here was the answer: 
"Well, yes, your dog could stand to lose a bit.  But honestly, people take such offense when I tell them that their dog weighs too much that anymore, if the weight problem is not too drastic, I just let it slide."
CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=340990
This Is A Healthy Weight Dog

Our dogs lives are too short.  The list of complications for our dogs from being overweight is well known (see here)  .  But the first step for a better (and possibly longer) life for your dog is to understand what a healthy weight looks like.

1. A dog should have a waist


When you look at your dog from above, there should be an hourglass figure.  Broad in the rib cage, broad in the hips, but narrower between.  If it is a straight line, your dog is overweight.

Also, when looking at the dog from the side, there should be abdominal tuck.  In other words, the should not hang down, but should be up tight into the dog.  The lower the belly is hanging, the fatter the dog.

In short, the dog's waist ought to be tiny.  If thick when viewed from above or from the side, your dog is overweight.

2. Ribs should be felt, not seen


If you can't feel the ribs without having to press and dig for them, then your dog is overweight. 

Check this out for some pictures.

Look, I'm not trying to guilt you into anything.  But you might not have all the info.  Push the topic with your vet.  Don't ask if my dog is overweight.  Ask if your dog is an an ideal weight and you might find a different answer.

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Off Leash Training: Expectations

When people consider off leash training  for their dog, often, they have a picture in their mind.  And, often that picture looks like this:


What do we see here?  We see folks strolling in the woods, and the dogs are strolling along side.  The dogs never go too far away.  In this and other pictures, we often see Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers.  These are dogs that were originally bred to work near to their handlers.  That is the nature of any retriever...the dog stays close and then is sent out to fetch and return to the handler's side.

I had a conversation recently with a dog owner.  She was struggling a bit with off leash training.  Her pup's recall is not what she wants it to be.  She expressed her mental picture: going camping with the dog and the dog stays in the campsite with them.

Her dog is a Brittany.  Unlike a retriever, a Brittany is bred *not* to work close by the handler's side.  Brittanys and other pointing breed dogs are bred to run "out there", looking for critters.  Even the closest working pointing breed dogs will still work in excess of 50 yards.

The breed of dog is important when considering your goals for off leash training.

There are two categories of behaviors for a dog.  First, there are the learned behaviors.  He learns that there is a squirrel in one particular tree.  He learns that if he comes when called, he gets cuddles, loving and treats.  These behaviors can be reinforced or these can go extinct if not reinforced.

The other category of behaviors are intrinsic.  These things were bred into the dog or genetic to dogs.  Many dogs like to chase squirrels.  This desire is genetic.  Same with the (unfortunate) desire to roll in smelly things.  This is fun because it is fun.  It is in the DNA of a dog.  Changing these behaviors is much harder because you are going against the very nature of the dog.

How close a dog stays near you is a intrinsic behavior.  Changing it is to change the nature of the dog.

When you do off leash training, you may find you need to alter your expectations, based on the dog.  I run my dog off leash all the time.  I do so in a 700 acre state park and I use a GPS tracking collar on him.  He comes when called, but I need to use a whistle as he is often out of sight and earshot.  If my expectations for off leash training were to have the dog within a 5 yard circle when we went for a walk, I would be working against the grain.  I would be working against his internal motivations.  Possible?  Sure, but definitely an uphill battle, and if the dog likes to range, you'll need to be ever vigilant.

In the weeks ahead I hope to talk more explicitly about off leash training.  But the first step in that training is to evaluate your dog and determine a reasonable expectation based on the dog's own motivations.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Trained Retrieve: Progress With Non Force Fetch

I wanted to post an update about how the non force fetch trained retrieve is going for my dog.

fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fetch!
Progress has been happening in leaps and bounds lately.  Every day I delay in publishing this means I need to revise what the dog has accomplished.  I can toss the training object anywhere in the house and he will pick it up and bring it to hand.  This includes throwing it down the stairs into the basement.  In the back yard, he will run to get the object and bring it to hand.

I've also started "pile" work in the back yard.  Pile is a misnomer.  Several bumpers are placed on the ground a distance away from the dog.  The dog is sent repeatedly to fetch from the pile.

Since moving the show into the backyard, his enthusiasm for the trained retrieve has increased.  He was bored in the house, but will retrieve with enthusiasm in the backyard.

A point that I have tried to make before is the necessity of truly understanding what motivates your dog.  I have a certain "play" routine with the dog that is reserved for outside.  No play is available until after trained retrieve work is finished.  I think this playtime is what is really motivating the dog to participate.  Right now, this specific kind of play is more important that food rewards.

Between each successful fetch instance, I am still rewarding with a treat.  But the *big* reward is the play time at the end of fetch work.  This is an application of Premack principle.  The idea behind Premack is that enjoyable or "highly likely" behaviors can be used to reward less enjoyable or "less likely" rewards.  In other words, rewards are actions and behaviors just as much as they are things to eat.  Google "Premack Principle" or take a look at this piece I wrote some time ago.

The plan for future work is to increase the distance for a pile of 3 objects.  Once he gets that, we'll shorten the distance and increase the number of bumpers.  Finally we'll increase the distance to the increased number of bumpers.  My intermediate goal is 9 bumpers each at a distance of 50 yards.  Only after all that drilling is done, we'll start over and switch to birds.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dog License For An Intact Dog

I have recently moved to Western Michigan from the greater Chicago area.  One thing I've noticed is that dog licenses are much more expensive if you keep an intact dog.  This is true if you regardless of whether you are a breeder or just have legitimate reasons for keeping your dog intact.

Here is how I have heard it explained:  Intact dogs are the reasons our shelters are being overrun.  Therefore, owners of intact dogs should have to pay more for the problem they are causing.

Sounds good, doesn't it.  You should have to pay for a service you are using.  I fly in a plane, I pay for a ticket.  There are toll roads in Chicago...so if you use the toll road, you should have to pay for its upkeep.  And if you keep an intact dog, you should have to pay for the burden that all of those puppies are placing on the system.

Fainomenon [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Too Many In Shelters?
All of those puppies...I wanted to see how bad things are in my county.  So I just did a search for puppies in my county.  There was 1.  As in "the loneliest number".  Then I did a search for all dogs.  Including the puppy from the earlier search, there were 44 dogs.

At this instance in time, in my county, puppies account for 2% of all the dogs in the shelter.  Where is the "overrun" that owners of intact dogs are responsible for?  If intact dogs and unplanned litters were overrunning shelters, would not puppies account for at least 25% of all the dogs in the shelter?

The truth is, shelters are not being overrun with puppies.  Unplanned litters are not the cause of overcrowded shelters.  Now, to be fair, I have not visited every shelters...there could be a glut of puppies in shelters in other parts of the country.  Just not here in Western Michigan.

Nor is there a glut of shelter puppies in the greater Chicago area.  Several years ago Crain's Business published this article which states what I am saying here: there is a shortage of puppies.

Why is it that shelters have too many dogs?  The overabundance of dogs in shelters is due to people getting dogs on a whim, and when they get too hard to care for, dumping them in a shelter.

Instead of charging extra for a dog license for an intact dog, I propose the following, which would really cover the costs of unwanted dogs:
  1. License fees are higher for dogs not micro-chipped.  
  2. When a dog shows up at a shelter, scan for the chip to find the owner.
  3. When a dog is surrendered or unwanted at a shelter: send the owner a bill.  You can get the owner info from the chip.  If no chip, you have already billed the owner with an increased license fee.

With such a plan, you are actually charging those who are contributing to the problem: those who see dogs as disposable.