“Respect” Is SO Last Year

Shhh, don’t tell anyone!!

I don’t know for sure, but I kind of think my dogs don’t “respect” me. But that’s OK.  Dogs probably don’t do “respect” anyway. It’s a human concept, and it depends on human cognition and social mores. When people say their dog respects them, it is usually a euphemism. It means that through their actions they have caused the dog to be intimidated or afraid.  Wary, at the very least. I think that’s how “respect” generally translates into animal behavior. One can usually see it in the “respectful” dogs’ demeanors.

I don’t bother with respect. I don’t even think about it anymore except when other people bring it up. But I would venture to say that my dogs rely on me. They look to me for guidance in new situations. They enjoy the structure I put to our lives. And I hope they trust me. That’s what leadership looks like at my house.

Respect and authority are irrelevant when one of us naturally has the greater cognitive skills, the keys to the cabinets, cars, and house, and the opposable thumbs. Why should humans be worried about having the respect of a creature that is dependent on us?

What if, instead, we humans used our big brains to figure out ways for dogs and humans to both get lots of what they want, and have an enriching life together? What if, instead of focusing on respect, we could get an animal that was joyfully cooperative?

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.

Clara and Eileen having fun training. Clara is learning to put something in a container.

If you’d like to see dogs trained without concern for establishing any kind of authority over them, with the goals of building practical life skills and having the training experience be the most fun possible for all participants, take a look at today’s video. It is called, “Imagine…”

It’s not perfect, but that’s part of the point. It shows what a B-level amateur trainer with mediocre mechanical skills and difficulties raising criteria can accomplish in a multiple dog household. (Of course with the help of some great teachers, in real life and online.)

So for those of you who are ready to consider a much more fun and less stressful way to interact with your dogs, dare to dream. For those of you who already know the secret: enjoy!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

More Information

Some of the clips came from how-to or demo videos I have published. They are:

A Secret for Training Two Dogs Step by step instructions for training multiple dogs, with video examples. The secret is to realize that the harder job belongs to the dog that is “waiting,” not the active dog.

Get Out Of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior  How I taught Clara to perform a default down whenever I bent over, instead of mugging my face.

Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure  A brief post and video tutorial using the method where a dog goes into a channel between objects and you mark when it backs out. I made this movie after watching the truly awful methods commonly used for teaching dogs to back up, and because I was unable to find another video demonstrating this particular low stress method to jump-start shaping backing up.

7 Great Reasons For Flirt Pole Play Discusses the ground rules for flirt pole play and some of its many benefits.

The Right Word Work on verbal cue discrimination, using the principles of reduced error learning.  The goal is separate release words for my three dogs, a very handy skill. 

And check out this lovely blog post that is related in spirit to what I am showing here: “What If” by Lori Nanan over at Your Pit Bull and You. Can you believe it? Pit bulls don’t need to be dominated either!

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

 

Posted in Dog training hints, Human and dog misunderstandings, Multiple dogs, Positive Reinforcement, Toys and Play, Treats | Tagged , , | 47 Comments

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a dog training franchise business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. (This is a special link to avoid raising their incoming click stats and you may see your browser redirected. Don’t worry.)

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them, including the following:

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

Sounds pretty good, so far, except for the fact that they don’t mention exactly how they help you achieve all this. But there are a few more red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, thanks to the analyses of those who have made a study of how to judge dog trainers by their own descriptions of what they do, we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers from Bark Busters are probably not going to spend any time building training relationships or “setting the dog up for success” if they are in such a hurry. (I’m not saying that training with positive reinforcement or counter conditioning necessarily takes longer. But teaching alternative behaviors rather than suppressing the problems takes a little work on the front end, mostly on the human side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar and can show immediate, although temporary, results.)
  • Without treats? Oh-oh.
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table, and of course the company is the one defining what constitutes the harshness of the punishment, not the dogs.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use to help create that lasting emotional bond with their happy lifelong buddy. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags to throw (not thrown at the dogs to hurt them, just thrown nearby to scare them). They also teach a special growly way to yell at one’s dog.

Photo includes air horns, spray bottles, cans of pennies to shake, and fabric pouches to fill with nuts and bolts or coins to throw near the dog

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

Added note, 4/9/14: Several commenters have said that the air horns and penny cans are not part of Bark Busters’ tools or kit. To be perfectly clear: The disc shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. However, the air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. So I maintain my stance that these are all tools used by Bark Busters. Some more commonly than others, perhaps. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign that the dog is stressed. But then it goes on to say, in the very first bullet point, that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company that advertises that it uses no treats does not employ desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and mostly widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is that dogs should properly be watchdogs; that they can come to distinguish true threats to your family (it doesn’t say how); and that any other barking is not useful to humans and is “nuisance” barking. The use of the word “nuisance” seems to imply one of the tenets held by believers in rank reduction: that when your dog exhibits a problem behavior, he is challenging your authority. (The flyer mentions that it is a real problem if a puppy barks back at you while being “corrected vocally.”) The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you get a dog who will be an asset: it will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been successfully punished for barking, will magically know that in the stranger danger situation (and only then), barking and protection are suddenly desirable.

The idea that dogs can intuitively recognize truly threatening humans dies hard, even in the force free training community. I have no doubt that there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, many breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But I’m sorry, that probably doesn’t go for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. Once I learned how many things the average undersocialized dog is bothered by, I let go of the idea that the average dog can safely make decisions about whom to object to. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that anybody is promulgating the idea that dogs as a general rule can make decisions about when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home.

A trainer friend points out that although Bark Busters mentions demand barking in the list of problems, they fail to point out that that is generally created and certainly maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. But that fact doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. And the result is especially sad. As long as the humans don’t become aware of the ways that they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive attention and harsh treatment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

I’m afraid the biggest myth involved with Bark Busters is the idea that the training methods they appear to use are benign ones. Using some very basic premises about learning theory, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you throw things in your dog’s direction, spray them,  and/or make sudden, extremely loud noises (either with an air horn, a penny can, or by growly yelling):

  • Your dog is quite likely to become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as behaviors are suppressed without alternatives being reinforced.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is very common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly with the aversive. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to appear effective. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just get rid of it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above). Barking is a natural dog behavior and very difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends, and all animals, deserve better than this.

Note: I have not hired Bark Busters nor have I been exposed to their training. This post is based on what they say about themselves in their promotional materials, the tools they promote, and deductions (informed by principles of learning theory) about the general, known effects of such tools. I have also read that there are some individual Bark Busters trainers who eschew these methods. 

Since some new folks may be arriving at the blog, here are my guidelines for comments.

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Human and dog misunderstandings, Punishment, Punishment culture, Reactivity, Stress Signals | Tagged , , , , , , | 89 Comments

What Happened to Summer’s Thunderstorm Phobia?

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks

Summer has gotten less afraid of thunder

Is it weird to write a post saying that something really shouldn’t have worked, but look, it kind of did? Is it irresponsible even? I keep pondering why I feel the need to explain all the strikes I had against me for this project. I certainly want to be responsible and not give people false hopes that if they try something they will have great success. But at the same time, I want to show something that did help my dogs.

Consider this an attempt to balance out all the posts I have read that say,  “I tried desensitization and counterconditioning and it didn’t work” or “Positive reinforcement didn’t work with my dog!” Despite many identifiable barriers to success with something I tried, I still got a moderate change for the better in one of my dogs’ quality of life. (The others thought it was pretty cool, too.)

The requirements to perform desensitization and counterconditioning successfully are very straightforward, but can be difficult to do properly in real life. Often, people who fail  blame the science. So let’s take a look at some of the situations in which the science itself says that the method might fail.

Challenges of Counter Conditioning

(you’ll see why I’m not even mentioning desensitization here in a minute)

To do counter conditioning successfully, you have to be ultra consistent and careful about pairing the stimulus (in this case, thunder) with the goodie that you hope will create a conditioned positive response (in this case, food). So if the stimulus happens a lot without your being there to provide the food, the dog’s physiology doesn’t get “convinced” that one will always predict the other. Likewise, if you run up to your dog and give her the same treat, in the same way, that you have been doing for thunder, but at random times, you will also dilute the predictive value of the thunder.

There are more nuanced problems. If your timing is off and you repeatedly give the goodie before the stimulus, you can get reverse conditioning. In this case, that would mean that food predicts thunder. Oh oh. And if you don’t switch up characteristics of the situation, the dog can attach the response to the wrong thing. For example, if you always wear a certain hat when counterconditioning, there is a good chance that the hat is the stimulus, or a necessary part of it.

And of course, the thunder needs at all times to be under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness for the dog. Yeah, right.

So what this means is that technically, counterconditioning to thunder may be well-nigh impossible. Do you get why? It’s something we have no control over. We can’t cause it, control it, or prevent it from happening.

What’s Hard About Treating Thunderstorm Phobia?

  • Unless you are home 24/7, you can’t always be there to pair the thunder with good stuff. That can shoot your efforts down before you even get started.
  • When you are home, the dogs likely hear the thunder before you do.
  • The sound is hard to “fake” convincingly using recordings on an audio system. Most a speakers  aren’t capable of generating the very lowest frequencies. And I suspect most dogs can distinguish the source of the sound. (It’s still probably a good idea to try desensitizing puppies via recording though.)
  • In a real thunderstorm, you can’t do true desensitization. The thunder may start quietly, but it gets loud too fast, and goes unpredictably from louder to softer during the duration of the storm. The thunder goes over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness way too fast, i.e., the phobic dog is already scared.
  • The rolls of thunder can have considerable duration and can overlap each other, making it difficult to know when to start and stop doling out the food.
  • Around here, thunder can be audible on and off for hours. There is a limit to the numbers of treats you can safely give!
  • There may be other physical effects of thunderstorms that the dog is reacting to, such as changes in barometric pressure. If so, those can’t be mimicked for practice, nor can humans sense them in a real storm in the way that dogs do.

So, given these limitations, I never figured I would get much of an improvement for Summer. But I’m a “tryer.” Even if we didn’t get a conditioned response, I figured the distraction might be helpful.

What I Did

I used spray cheese, my go-to easy, high-value treat. As soon as I heard the first thunder clap, or the dogs appeared to hear one, I got the spray cheese. I commenced giving everyone a little lick with each roll of thunder. I did this every time I was home. During very long storms or those days where it would thunder on and off all day, I would finally stop at some point, or stop treating all but the loudest rumbles or claps. This was not ideal, but real life came barging in and it wasn’t OK to make my dogs sick.

After a year or more, Summer started showing a preference for going into the bedroom when it thundered, so I incorporated that into the routine when possible.

In the movie, you can see the progress that she has made between late 2012 and early 2014.

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

Note: my treat delivery in the movie is often slower than normal because I am trying to film at the same time.

John Visconti’s “Bunker” Method for Thunder Phobia

When I first started this piece, I had not read about John Visconti’s “Bunker” method for helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia. If you are interested in starting a protocol for your dog, you should definitely read the article and study his well thought-out method. It’s much more complete than what I have done, and has much better odds of having a beneficial effect.

He acknowledges in his piece that he can’t “prove” that the actions he took are what helped his dog so much. (But his evidence seems very strong, especially given that his dog started prompting him for the protocol.)  I love that. I’m much more comfortable with his caution than with anyone who says, “Follow my patented, definitive, unique method and your dog will get 100% better! In only two short sessions!”

I was pleased upon reading Mr. Visconti’s piece that there are some aspects of his system that I have happened onto, mostly having to do with the routine. As I mentioned, at Summer’s suggestion we have started going to a certain room for the thunder routine.

But I did not take the care to condition a “whole package” response like Mr. Visconti did, including olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues. (What a great method, to pack in all those associations that he can control.) But I got the great food and location part. And as you can see from the movie, it probably helped.

Other Resources

Other Posts of Mine on Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Final Thoughts

In our situation, there is also habituation in play. I’ve mentioned that sometimes we have thunder rumbling for many hours on end. I just can’t keep passing out the treats every time. Generally after a bit of time has passed, I can stop and Summer manages to sack out for a nap. But habituation on its own is a fairly weak way of changing an emotional response, so I suspect that the overall change has been due to the counterconditioning.

But even if this is mostly habituation and the security of a routine, I am so happy that it has helped Summer. I think ameliorating fear is a huge quality of life issue, so I’m glad to do it wherever I can.

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Fear, Stress Signals | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.

Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a script of the movie; there is a lot of narrative for which I didn’t put text on screen.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Thanks for watching!

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dogs' perceptions, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Stress Signals, Terminology | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Because I read this incredible book, that’s why. 

Book Review

Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case, MS

Available at Dogwise and Amazon.

A book about dog nutrition and feeding choices that talks about cognitive biases and logical fallacies? My kind of book!

Author, trainer, canine nutritionist and consultant Linda Case has written a unique book on how to make decisions about what to feed your dog. She has the right credentials:  B.S., Animal Science, Cornell University, M.S. Canine/Feline Nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana, and tons of high-level professional Photo of book: Dog Food Logic by Linda Caseworking experience. The book is packed with information about dog nutrition, but equally important is the information about **how** to go about making decisions about feeding. Ms. Case realizes that most people don’t make decisions about their pets based on charts of data. Of course she includes the charts, and gives instruction on how to use them. But she also teaches us how to navigate the waters of cultural assumptions, advertising, our own upbringing, and most important, cognitive biases.

The writing style is casual and pleasant, while still being precise.  She jokes around. And the book is well organized, persuasive, and thorough. There are chapters on dogs’ nutritional needs including adjusting for their age and “lifestyle,” common ingredients and what they really are, critical thinking and decision making about our dogs’ food, the history of dog food, dog food companies–who really makes what, dog food marketing and labeling (read and weep), and what regulating bodies work to keep dog food safe (in the US) and how to contact them.

Goals of the Book

I knew I would love this book when I saw the three-point synopsis in the introduction:

[In order to make good decisions about our dogs' nutritional health...]

We need a strong emotional attachment to the idea of making the best choice for our dogs and an understanding of how that attachment affects our choices; we also need a grounding in the science of canine nutrition (an understanding of what we know to be true and proven versus what is mere speculation or conjecture); and we need a set of strong critical thinking skills to allow us to sort truth from marketing hype when evaluating dog food companies, brands, and products.

I would have been happy with just the second and third points, but the first point converts the book from merely useful to a slam dunk. And she delivers on all three.

Later in the book, she reiterates her point:

It should be evident by now that my goal with this book is not to tell you what food to feed to your dog or how to specifically advise your clients about their dogs. Rather, my objective is to promote well-reasoned decision making that combines a working knowledge of the scientific method, canine nutrition and critical thinking skills.

You get it? She’s not going to make a master list of the best dog foods and recommend the top five. She’s going to teach you how to do it yourself, for your own dogs.

Biases and Fallacies

Is Summer a skeptic too?

Is Summer a skeptic too?

A great strength of the book is the focus on biases and fallacies about dogs, their needs, their nutrition, our own motivation, and much more. Here are a few highlights.

Illusion of Control: She takes as a small case study the Internet claims that a certain ingredient is connected to seizures in dogs. She shows the tortuous path that led to the rumors. Most important, she points out that the known possible causes for seizures, genetics and idiopathic, are both something over which an owner has no control. Because of confirmation bias and the illusion of control, diet is most people’s go-to solution for any health problem that is making us feel frustrated and helpless.

Overfeeding and treat training: She points out that connecting food and love (a good thing) can lead to dog obesity (a bad thing) if critical thinking and self observation are left out of the picture. She points out that training sessions strengthen the association between food and love in our minds and can have an effect on our choices. And even though she mentions training with food in this section, she does not equate that with having overweight dogs. She states the obvious without fanfare, that it just requires the ability to subtract the calories from the dog’s daily needs to prevent any weight problem. I had never thought about how training with food reifies the food/love connection…in the human.

Zani performing a "natural canid behavior": Eating grass

Zani performing a “natural canid behavior”: Eating grass

Naturalistic Fallacy: She introduces and first discusses this fallacy in the section about dogs’ nutritional needs. She sums up the problem with a sentence that may tick some people off, but which she defends flawlessly: “There is no rational reason to believe that, just because something can be classified as natural for dogs…that it without question follows that these things are better for dogs.” She goes on to explain that benefits need to stand on evidence, not just a claim of naturalness. She discusses the effects of the naturalistic fallacy several more times:  in an extended case study about choosing a dog food from the myriad choices available now, in the section on pet food marketing, and (oh boy!) in the section on labeling.

Credentials and Social Media

In a short but chilling section, Ms. Case lets us know how frustrating the world of a nutritionist can be. In an almost perfect parallel to the training world, anybody can blast their opinion on nutrition for dogs all over the internet and not be called to task for it. You can’t go a day on social media without running into it. As a nutritionist, she is ethically and professionally bound to take extreme care about recommendations, but, for instance, I, as an uncredentialed blogger, can write anything I want. I could start promoting Eileen’s All Egg Diet starting tomorrow without much risk of repercussions. But I’m going to follow her advice, which is “If you don’t have the creds, don’t make the claim.”

And indeed, I can’t start recommending this book fast enough. Just yesterday I read someone’s post on FaceBook decrying the lack of attention to nutrition that people give to their pet dogs. She went on to make four points about choosing a food. Three of this passionate, caring person’s points, it turns out, have absolutely no current basis in science, and two of those three actually have minor but documented risks. The fourth was a recommendation about labeling. The writer said to look for a certain word connected with the food. And I just learned that word has virtually no regulated meaning in the petfood industry.

Critique

Frankly, I am so thrilled with this book and grateful that it is available to us that it’s hard to find a flaw. But just so you know that I did read it with a critical eye: I would have loved a central listing of all the BS myths that we hear about feeding dogs. However, these fallacies are so numerous and so central to the arguments of the book that making a list in addition to addressing them in the flow of the text would substantially increase its size. One other thing: Appendix 5 is called a flow chart for dog food choice–a great idea. I spent a bit of time searching for the actual flow chart–could it have been an insert and it fell out?–until I finally realized that the list of questions in text format was the flow chart. I would have loved to see a graphical decision tree as well.

Odds and Ends

I learned something on almost every page of this book. Here are a few little tidbits:

  • The evidence that dogs are omnivorous
  • Which label terms on foods are actually legally defined
  • Why “filler” is an empty (ha ha) epithet
  • The pros and cons of both raw and cooked, extruded food
  • The legal bounds of the term “natural”
  • Why it’s hypocritical that a food that is supposed to be complete and total nutrition is marketed with additional implied claims about improving your dog’s health

Personal Response

I said at the beginning of this post that I intend to change my dogs’ food. I’m relieved to say that I haven’t chosen a bad food, and many of the principles I have followed in making my choice are pretty good. But now I’m better informed and can make a better choice.

Bottom line:  I trust this book. Ms. Case gives us the information we need, and teaches methods of making assessments on our own. She doesn’t set anything in stone. I am completely confident that when new information comes out that updates or even contradicts information she has in the book, she will be the first to spread the word, hopefully in a future edition.

This review was not solicited. I saw that Ms. Case had written the book, I bought it, I read it, and I hope every other dog owner reads it as well.

Coming Up:

BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
Thesholds: The Movie!
What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?
Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Book Review, Critical Thinking, Research | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

Thanks, Susan and associates!

Train us or just feed us!

When questioned about possible weight problems from training with food, we R+ trainers always say something like, “No problem! Just subtract the training calories from your dogs’ daily meals and it will work out!”

For me, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Am I the only one for whom this is a problem? Sometimes I wonder before I publish these kinds of things exactly how many people are as compulsive as I am have situations similar to mine. But then I figure that the world is a big place, so perhaps this will help somebody out there.

Here’s my situation:

  • I have three dogs who vary in size, who all love to be trained;
  • I want everybody to have approximately the same number of reps in training;
  • I hate counting kibble; and
  • I don’t want to use all the dogs’ kibble for training.

And here’s is a graphic representation of the problem:

For each doggie meal, Clara gets a generous 1/2 cup, Summer gets 1/3 cup, and Zani gets 1/4 cup.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals

So let’s say I want to take out 30 pieces of kibble from each for training. That will generally  let each dog work on one to three behaviors.

Look what happens to their meals:

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals after training treats removed

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals after training treats removed

Poor Zani! It only puts a dent in Clara’s meal, it leaves a halfway decent amount for Summer, but Zani is left with less than half of her meal! That bugs me! One of the reasons I virtually always feed my dogs before training is that I don’t want them working on an empty stomach. And Zani may be littler, but it’s not fair taking away such a bigger percentage of her food!

But on the other hand, if I take away less of her meal, she gets fewer training reps than the other two.

And here I am still counting kibble.

Two-Part Solution

I finally figured out what to do.

1) Switch Zani to smaller kibble. I shopped around and found a comparable kibble with smaller, but not tiny bites. It’s nice for carrying around in my pocket for training treats, too. Here’s what their meals look like now, with approximately 30 pieces removed for training.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's Meals Adjusted

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals, training treats removed, after Zani’s food switch

So Zani has the same number of training reps as the others, but still has the majority of her meal intact. (Now Summer is the one who looks a little cheated, but I’m going to say this is the best I can do for now.)

2) Weigh the kibble, don’t count it. I don’t mind giving a plug for my trusty Oxo kitchen scale here. I switch it to grams for weighing kibble, since I can get a little more precision that way. Believe it or not, that’s 30 pieces of Zani’s new kibble on the scale. For me, weighing is a lot quicker than counting.

Weighing kibble

Weighing kibble on kitchen scale

Everybody’s different. Some people would never consider switching a dog’s food just to change kibble size. But this solution works for me because I tend to switch my dogs’ kibble around every once in a while anyway, just to make sure they are getting a variety of the lesser nutrients. So that doesn’t bother me. Plus none of mine has any particular digestive issues (knock on wood).

On days when I don’t plan any training, I can switch Zani back to the old kibble, or switch the other dogs to hers if I want. (Another consideration is whether the foods have a similar calorie count per volume or weight. Mine worked out to be close enough without any extra tinkering necessary.)

Sorry this doesn’t offer anything to the raw feeders, who have a whole different set of challenges.

I would love to hear from some folks with a bigger spread in their dogs’ weights. What do you all do?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog training hints, Positive Reinforcement, Treats | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

16 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

Training, 2009

“Real” training with Cricket, 2009

When most of us think of cues, we think of the verbal ones we teach our dogs. “Sit,” “Down,” “Here!” Perhaps we have taught them some hand signals as well. To teach a cue we go through a set process that can be quite a bit of work. It involves foresight, planning, and decision making on our parts. And practice, practice, practice. I think that tends to limit our perception of the other ways cues can come to exist in our lives with our dogs.

There are cues going on all the time that we didn’t plan or teach, and some that we don’t even know about.

Let’s review the definition. A cue in learning theory is properly referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Such a mouthful. A discriminative stimulus signals that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. (The term also applies to a stimulus that indicates that reinforcement is not available, but let’s leave that alone for now.*). Breaking it down a bit: What’s a stimulus? It is a physical event that the organism can sense. Discriminative? It has a special meaning in this definition.

So in plainer English, and in the usage of dog training, a cue is a green light that tells the animal that there is a desirable consequence available if a certain behavior is performed. In real life training, we need to be sure and make it different enough from other stimuli so that the animal knows what behavior is being indicated. You don’t want your “bow” cue to sound like your “down” cue (thanks, Kathy Sdao!), and if you are using colors as cues, you had better not use colors that look almost the same to a dog, like orange and red.

Note that a cue is not a “command” or an “order.” There is no force in the definition of cue.

The Clever Cue Detector

What does this mean to Clara?

What does this mean to Clara?

My dog Clara has a genius for observation of the tiniest details, perhaps in part a result of her feral background. Since she arrived in my dog household, I have noticed an increase in group behaviors by my dogs that are responses to events in their environment. In other words, they now notice all sorts of things, usually that I do, that likely predict good stuff. And Clara in particular has the ability to follow my behavior chains backwards, to find the earliest predictor that I might do something cool.

The first one that I noticed is that Clara responds when I reach for the top shelf of a particular cupboard in the morning as I am getting ready for work. Virtually the only time I reach up there is to get down the package of cookies that I typically dip into for the dogs when I get ready to leave. Clara gets a nice treat when she goes to her crate, and the others (who are separated in different parts of the house but not otherwise confined) get a small piece too.

If we put that in the language of behavior analysis, we have:

  • Antecedent: Eileen reaches for package of cookies on the top shelf
  • Behavior: Clara runs to her crate and waits inside
  • Consequence: Clara gets a nice chunk of cookie

The interesting thing to me is how far back in time Clara has tracked this cue. Some dogs might not get in their place until verbally cued to do so. That’s the case with my other two dogs. Or a dog might wait until I was walking towards her crate. Or breaking the cookie into pieces, or rattling the package while getting the cookie out. But Clara has traced my behaviors backwards to the earliest consistent predictor of my leaving and her cookie: my reaching for the package. Also, I think it’s very cool that she runs away from the cookie to get the cookie.

In the movie, I show what happens when I reach into the cupboard and pull out something from a lower shelf. (Nothing! Even though it’s a noisy package, the dogs continue to watch, but don’t budge.) Then I show what happens when I reach for the special package of cookies. The sound is certainly part of the cue, but Clara doesn’t always wait for the sound. I have experimented, and she discriminates on the basis of what shelf I am reaching for.

Here are some more cues that I have come to notice. They are mostly Clara’s, but the other dogs have learned them now as well. I’m skipping past the more obvious ones like how all the dogs come running if they hear me preparing a meal, or open the front door. Everybody’s dogs do that, right?

Cue, Cues, Everywhere!

The Computer

  • Setting: kitchen, in the morning. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m getting ready to leave for work, and she’ll get a good treat when I crate her. So actually, now that I think about it, she has traced the cookie cue even farther back in time than I realized.
  • Setting: kitchen, in the late evening. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to the bedroom. Why: I’m getting ready to go to bed, and she loves getting in the bed. (So in these two, the time of day is a part of the antecedent that allows her to discriminate.)
  • Setting: kitchen or office, the rest of the day. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: All dogs jump up or come running from other parts of the house to see what will happen. Why: Whatever I do next will likely be more interesting to them than my working on the computer.

OK, you get that when I actually get off the computer, it’s a real event. And actually, my drawing a breath and reaching for the laptop cover is now becoming the cue.

A different computer cue:

  • Setting: office, early evening. Cue: I put my laptop in its cover. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m likely going out (I carry my laptop around a lot).

The All-Important Ball

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.

The Ball Game

As you can imagine, with a ball-crazy dog like Clara, she pays intense attention to any cue that might precede a game.

  • Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I clean up after the dogs and put the poop stuff away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I finish raking and put the rake away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I let the dogs out of their various areas after they eat their supper. Behavior: Clara runs to the back door, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I walk towards the back door. Behavior: Clara runs ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.

OK, from the above four, you can see how important playing ball is to Clara! The other dogs usually come too, since there is reinforcement available for them as well.

Kitchen Stuff, Training Sessions, and Attention in General

  • Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I lean back in my chair after eating. Behavior: Clara comes running over and nuzzles my hands. Why: I am available to pay attention to her again.
  • Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I open the pill bottle for Summer’s thyroid medicine. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: they all get a little peanut butter when I give Summer her pill. This one is especially interesting because it has been several years since I used to open the bottle for Summer’s pills twice a day. These days I only open it once a week because I cut up the pills and put them in a pill sorter. And I don’t always do that when it’s time to administer the pill. So it is no longer a perfect predictor. No matter; they still all come running. The power of a variable reinforcement schedule.
  • Setting: Anywhere in the house. Cue: I pick up the camera tripod. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: Training session!
  • Setting: Anywhere in the house: Cue: I pick up one of the dogs’ mats. Behavior: All dogs come running and try to get on it even while it’s up in the air. Why: Training or mat session!
  • Setting: I am talking on the phone. Cue: I start making finishing remarks. My dogs can tell from my inflection that I am winding up the conversation even before I get to “Goodbye.” Dang, they are good! Behavior: All dogs gather around. Why: I will probably get up and do something.
  • Setting: Anywhere in house. Cue: A delivery truck comes by.  Behavior: Clara and Zani come running. Why: I have classically conditioned Summer’s barking to mean a shower of food, and it has morphed into a recall cue. However, Clara and Zani both learned what makes Summer bark, so they no longer wait for her to bark.

Snow???

A small black and tan colored hound is looking up. She has flecks of snow all over her face

Zani in the snow

Finally, here’s one starring Zani. Back in 2011, when I was making this movie about negative and positive reinforcement, I trained Zani to run down my back steps on cue. I have not used that cue very much in our life together, since generally she goes down when she needs to and I don’t intervene if she thinks she doesn’t need to. Some of the training for that cue took place during some snow here, a relative rarity. Interestingly, the snow became a cue! See what happens.

There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. I discussed with some knowledgeable friends what kind of antecedent the snow likely was. Characteristics of the environment are often setting factors. However, the snow by itself is sufficient to get Zani to start running up and down the stairs. So I vote that it is an actual cue. 

What are some of your dogs’ more interesting cues? Planned or unplanned?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* Keller and Schoenfeld, Principles of Psychology, 1950, p 118. A stimulus-delta is also a discriminative stimulus.

Posted in Behavior analysis, Cues, Discrimination, Operant conditioning | Tagged , , | 34 Comments