by Grayson Schaffer | on February 8th, 2010 | in Features
Generally, digging dogs are a nuissance but I thought we should teach Danger to dig on command in case he ever needs to dig me out of an avalanche or help me burrow in for the night. How to do it: Bury some jerky in the snow or soft dirt. Show him where it is. Click him for digging down to it. Simple stuff. Just remember to click the actual paw stroke. I found that Danger would look at me and take one swipe at the dirt to test whether that’s what he was being clicked for. Fun stuff.
by Grayson Schaffer | on December 7th, 2009 | in Features, Training
Here’s a classic trick that never gets old: Play dead. Use a clicker to shape this behavior. The click should come right at the moment when the dog has completed the task. Early on, you might click just for him lying down and then for flopping over onto his side a bit. With a dog that’s had some clicker training before and knows that he’s got to offer a behavior to get the click, this should go quickly. You can teach a roll-over the same way.
by Sue Barns | on October 30th, 2009 | in Features, Media, Time Wasters
Links to some of my favorite clicker training videos and people:
by Sue Barns | on June 15th, 2009 | in Books, Features, Media
In her new book, Reaching the Animal Mind ($25, Scribner), Karen Pryor offers a lively, wide-ranging overview of the use of operant conditioning for training, well, nearly any animal you can think of. Ms. Pryor is easily the best-recognized of clicker trainers, having popularized the term and practice over the last 30 years or so, starting with her hugely popular book Don’t Shoot the Dog. She uses her experience as a trainer of an enormous variety of animals—from hermit crabs to dolphins to people—to explain the technology of operant conditioning in an entertaining, insightful way. The book interweaves personal history, observation, and science to provide the reader with a profound understanding of how clicker training works, and how it allows communication between humans and other species in ways that other training methods cannot.
As most experienced clicker trainers have noticed, clicker training has some unusual properties. Training times are often dramatically reduced by the clicker, animals sometimes learn a new behavior after a single click. Generalization of trained behaviors is faster, and the clicker is excellent for addressing fear-related problems. And animals (and people) seem to find being trained with the clicker very motivating, much more fun than with reward-based training alone. Pryor went in search of explanations for these effects, interviewing neuroscientists and others in an effort to understand “how” clicker training works. This section of the book provides some tantalizing preliminary information on this topic, and I hope it will spark additional investigations in future.
Personally, I found the second to last chapter the most interesting, as it describes application of clicker training to people. A recent development, “TAG” teaching (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) is being used for everything from working with autistic children to improving golf swings to increasing efficiency on commercial fishing ships. We are animals, too, and the same principles of learning apply. With the addition of language to speed the process, TAG teaching provides a fun, efficient method to train people at many tasks.
The gift that clicker training offers us, as Pryor eloquently describes, is the opportunity to enter into a mutually rewarding training relationship with animals, including people. When we remove force, pain, and domination from the learning process and substitute patience, respect, and communication, we open the door to true partnership. For anyone interested in training others, human or animal, this transition is crucial, and Reaching the Animal Mind provides an outstanding introduction to the philosophy and technology needed to get there.
by Grayson Schaffer | on May 26th, 2009 | in Features
After all the fuss over the Obamas’ choice of a dog—Portuguese water spaniel Bo, who was introduced in April—we were curious to see how the first family would train the little guy. Assistance Dogs of the West’s Sue Barns and I reached Bo’s trainer Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz in northern Virginia, where she runs Merit Puppy Training. Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 51, specializes in training pets in family situations. She’s worked with Senator Ted Kennedy’s dogs Splash, Sunny, and, most recently, Cappy, who’s Bo’s littermate. She won’t talk about Obamas or the White House dog specifically, other than to say, “It’s still a home; dogs are still dogs; and kids are still kids.” Here’s our conversation.
Outside: What’s your basic training methodology?
Sylvia-Stasiewicz: I use positive reinforcement for the whole family. It works, it’s easy, and the kids can get involved.
Outside: Clicker training?
S-S: Clicker training. I sometimes hand clickers to students, but I understand it’s just something else in their hands. They’re still trying to get coordinated with a leash and hand signals. If they want one, they get one; if not, I don’t push it. I’m all about getting family working together with the dog.
Outside: Name some fun learning drills a family can do together with a dog.
S-S: There are all kind of things you can do in the framework of everyday life so you’re not out drilling the dog for an hour. We structure it so every interaction with the dog is both fun and a training scenario. Retrieving: Even non-retrieving breeds can learn how to retrieve. And it happens really easily without a whole lot of effort. The dog runs out and grabs it and brings it to you and you say, “Good dog, have a cookie.” He’s going to start retrieving more and more. It’ll become a habit for him. Once you get that going, you can play hide-and-seek. You put the dog in a sit-stay, go hide his toy, and tell him to go find it. If he brings it back, you stuff it with food for him. There’s all kinds of things you can do. My daughter used a cash register with our border collie. She would hide a treat in there and train the dog to hit the buttons to get the treat.
Outside: What problems do you run into with kids and dogs?
S-S: There has to be supervision by parents all the time. Because I’m a professional trainer, my children watch me and naturally learn to interact with dogs. This never included any rough-and-tumble games that might lead the dog to overstep his bounds. Many times people don’t understand this. They let kids tumble with the dogs, and the kids don’t really know any better. We want parents to teach their kids that once a young dog or an untrained dog goes over the edge, it’s hard to bring him back. So you have to put that control in when you’re playing. I don’t recommend tug-of-war in the early stages of training, especially with kids until you have complete control over the commands of the dog. A famous trainer, Jon Rogerson, said, “expose your dog to everything. Find out what he likes, then control it, control the dog, and control the game.” That’s my philosophy; that’s what I like to live by; and that’s what I want families to learn. Later on you can play games like tug, but only when you’re in control of it. When you’re in control of the environment and the resources, that creates a very good relationship.
Outside: What’s your philosophy on treats and lures?
S-S: Luring is simply putting food in the hand that you will use on the dog’s nose to coax him into positions. It means you don’t have to physically position the dog. Rewards are always going to be a factor in the dog’s life, and we’re just saying, Hey, control the rewards—make dogs work for them. You hear people saying, It didn’t work. That’s because they got rid of the food too quickly. They didn’t fade it out properly. Using food rewards is far quicker because they’re watching you before they’re ever listening to you. They know when you’ll be home on a Saturday or getting ready for work on a Monday.
Outside: Are there things you need to teach a dog that’s going to be in the public eye that you wouldn’t teach to a normal dog?
S-S: There are very strict regulations that you have to follow in that environment. Its an enormous responsibility to train the dog like a citizen. When I work with someone, we get the dog out and work in public, teach him to sit, how to walk on the street when people are going by, going through doors, and how to greet people. When I have clients who will be out in the public a lot, we work out in the public a lot—privately.
Outside: Do you expose them to microphones and flashbulbs?
S-S: You just need to get the dog out in public and use food to keep them focused on you and the task at hand. It doesn’t take very long. Go for short amounts of time, and make it fun. Some dogs may need a little more work in those areas, but I’ve been fortunate in that most of the dogs I’ve worked with were good temperamentally.
Outside: Sounds like you don’t get a lot of dogs with fear issues.
S-S: I’ve had dogs come into my classes with fear issues. There are two options: you can work with the dog and make is easy for them to feel comfortable here . . . or you can force the issue, and I don’t go there.
Outside: So a gradual desensitization?
S-S: Yes. Keep a dog busy and focused on the owner such that the dog doesn’t have time to go on his own program and think Oh, that’s scary. We keep the dog’s mind busy and focused on the task.
Outside: Would you say that everyone makes the same training mistakes with their first dog?
S-S: I don’t know if everybody does. These days it’s a little different because positive reinforcement has moved to the forefront and owners have a choice. Back when I started, positive reinforcement was underground. I attended many classes where I had to hide my food and sneak it to the dog. I had a Portuguese water dog. I learned through her to make the transition to food. It was difficult because she already had a negative image about training. She didn’t like the leash; she didn’t like the collar; and she didn’t know how to work for food. I had to clear out those things. It took me about 18 months to retrain her. I basically stopped competing, stopped going to classes, and I got involved in agility for fun, some tracking for fun, and, through food, I got her going again.
Outside: Is there something you like about the Portuguese water dog?
S-S: They have a good temperament. They’re described as good family dogs—good with children. A lot of breeds out there are described that way, so that’s where you have to screen your breeders very carefully and make sure that they’re qualified and have a good reputation. Also, there are allergies in my family and so I like the fact that they were considered unlikely to cause allergies. I don’t think there’s any dog out there that actually allergy-free, but they’re considered a better bet. What people don’t realize with a non-shedding breed is that there’s a higher grooming requirement. It’s a nightmare. People forget.
Outside: Have your classes become more popular as of late?
S-S: There’s been a lot of interest, which is good. I’m really surprised how many people out there aren’t familiar with clicker training and positive reinforcement. It amazes me that so many people don’t know about Dr. Ian Dunbar. His book was the first I read about positive reinforcement and animal behavior, and it was written in such a way that it was easy to understand for someone just getting into it.
Outside: Why are some people still so resistant to using food for training?
S-S: A couple of years ago, I had a few people sign up for my class who saw that I was using food and they said, “Well, I don’t want to do that. That’s OK for puppies, but that’s not real dog training. You have to slam them around or push their rump.” But this is real dog training. We’re just taking a different route. Both methods are going to get you a trained dog, but it’s a personal choice about how you want to get there and which road you want to take. I prefer the method that I’m using. I feel better using it. I was also a non-spanking parent.
Outside: What about the common assumption that a dog is just disobeying?
D: People are quick to call a dog stubborn—say, “He knows how to do this. There’s something wrong with him.” I don’t like to call a dog stubborn. Some mighty be more independent thinking; some might be a little more spirited or have high energy. I don’t like to use labels because once you put a label on a dog, people emphasize the negative for some reason. It’s the way we were raised: “How can I fix this problem.” I don’t think it’s a matter of correcting it; it’s a matter of replacing it with something else incompatible with what they want to do—something desirable. People get focused on what the dog is doing wrong rather than paying attention to what they want the dog to do instead.
Outside: Speaking of things people pay attention to, when will Bo take his first dump on the White House lawn?
S-S: Well I have no idea.
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 23rd, 2009 | in Features, Training
After learning push, tug came easy for Danger. Ever tried to wrench a favorite sock from your dog’s mouth? The instinct is to tug back. Dangle an enticing rag or rope in front of your dog and you’ll get the same response. But tug as a service dog skill is a bit more nuanced. You don’t want your dog to rip or yank as hard as possible, rather you want him to have a bit more tact. How you click and treat to end up with a crisp, gentle tug depends on your dog’s disposition.
- If your dog is the sort that really loves to play tug and hates to stop, click only for a gentle tug at the outset. If your dog is less forceful to begin with, just click when he grasps the rag in his mouth.
- Now shape the kind of tug you want. Danger has a soft mouth; in the first step all he’d do was hold the rag in his mouth. To get him to tug, I pulled sharply on the rag—just as hard as I wanted him to tug—while he held on. I clicked when he held on. This produced the right level of force. If your dog is more of the tugging type, be careful to avoid clicking for the sort of tug that involves head-shaking and growling.
- Now, if there’s a specific place on the rope or rag that you want him to tug—say, the tip for more leverage—click only for that. Make sure he’s successful 80 percent of the time before you move on to the next step.
- Once he’s consistently giving you the desired tug you want when presented with something to pull on, add the cue.
- After a few more training sessions, you’ll be ready to generalize the skill by tying the tug rope onto different objects like doors, drawers, and the fridge. A great exercise to work on is combining push with tug. The dog opens and closes a door, resetting his own training drill and receiving a treat each time.
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 15th, 2009 | in DVDs, Media, Syllabus
Even though it came out in 2004, The How of Bow Wow! is still the DVD to beat for careful explanation of early obedience training. Sherri Lippman and Virginia Broitman spend the full 84 minutes on the little stuff—like eye contact and resisting temptations—that you’re likely to rush by in order to get to the fun stuff, like retrieving. They use clickers and treats shape early behaviors that will become habits is you instill them early. Whether you’re training a hunting dog, a service dog, or a stay-at-home pal, these skills apply. Take them seriously, or regret it later. $35
by Grayson Schaffer | on April 3rd, 2009 | in Features
At times, it seems like Danger is trying to willfully unhinge me. Frantic outbursts, lunging for my arm and then dangling from it by his teeth, swiping sticks of butter off the counters and then swallowing them whole like horse pills–these are all par for the course. Getting a dog to not do something can often be harder than teaching complicated behaviors. Most guys I know resort to some combination of shouting, “Cut that $@&# out!!!” and the dog’s name over and over. I’m guilty of this, too, though less now than I used to be. Here’s a primer on what works and what doesn’t. (more…)
by Grayson Schaffer | on March 31st, 2009 | in Features
It’s client placement week at Assistance Dogs of the West, which means matching dogs with their new people. Trained dogs are usually about two years old when they’re ready to be placed into service. But first they have to be matched with their new handler. I didn’t realize this, but the handler/service dog match isn’t made until quite late in the dog’s training. Clients have several weeks of meetings–sort of like a courtship for the next ten years–to sort out which dog goes best with each client and vice versa. This week, the matches had been made and clients were working on their handling skills with the ADW trainers–navigating narrow store isles, learning how to direct the dog, and convincing her not to sniff and nibble at passing distractions.
by Grayson Schaffer | on February 23rd, 2009 | in Swag the Dog
Ever wondered what it takes to make a service dog? Me, too, so last week Danger and I enrolled with Santa Fe’s Assistance Dogs of the West to find out. Over the next nine months, Danger will learn the 90 or so commands that service dogs need to know,* and I’ll learn how to train them. There are many types of assistance dogs–guide dogs for the blind, service dogs for people with disabilities, seizure alert dogs, diabetic-shock-detection dogs, and probably a few others I haven’t heard of. With Danger, we’ll be working on service dog skills like turning on lights and hitting the crosswalk button with his nose. Until now, Danger’s training has been geared toward field handling, bringing out his natural canine abilities like retrieving and game-finding and taking directional hand signals from a distance. This new training will be all about teaching him to perform precise problem-solving tasks and reinforcing manners and a calm temperament.
That brings me to the overarching point of this exercise: Every kept dog is a service animal in some capacity, even if that service is just providing a furry armrest while you sit on the couch and watch The Wire. OK, that’s a pretty weak example, but the point is that learning to live and interact with your dog is good for both of you. Dogs love structure and are generally happiest when they’re working. And the resulting well-trained dogs are more fun to be around and less likely to cause their owners headaches, especially in public. Follow along with us and do try this at home. Most of all, don’t let your dog become unemployed.
Now, onto the training: We’ll be working with ADW trainer Sue Barns, who’s variously trained field dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, and assistance dogs. We’ll also be using the popular clicker method; it works like this: You’ve got a little clicker box–all it does is make a clicking sound when you push the button–which is used at the precise moment the dog completes a task and is then followed by a treat. Click–>treat, click–>treat, click–>treat, and soon enough the dog knows that the clicking sound means he’s done good and a treat is coming. Yeah, it’s that simple. But it’s not necessarily easy. The click has to come at the exact moment of the desired behavior occurs and only when he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. Click for a half sit and that’s what you’re teaching, even if you mean for his butt to hit the floor.
The Exercise: Eye Contact
The Workout: 10 reps, three times per day
To get started, Sue had us work on eye contact. I’d always thought a dog’s willingness to make eye contact was genetic, but it turns out you can train it. Assuming your dog can sit, have him sit. Now, say his name and wait for him to look you in the eye. Most likely he’ll look at your hand if there’s a treat in it, or maybe at your treat bag. Just be patient. Put your treat hand behind your back if it’s too big a distraction. At the moment he locks eyes with you, click–> treat. As he gets more fluent with the behavior, stop saying his name and just click every time he makes eye contact.
This is one of those things that’s making me slap my forehead now for not training it earlier. If you can train your dog to focus on you, training every other behavior gets easier. If his attention is wandering, everything else will be a struggle.
*To answer three common questions of late: No, I won’t be giving him up afterwards. No, he won’t become a certified service dog with a vest and an ID. Which means that, No, I won’t be donning Blue Blockers and trying to get him on planes or added to my dinner reservations.