Thursday, October 25, 2012

Debunking Clicker Myths ... Again?

Maybe other trainers have said this before, but it can be said again. Yesterday at the store, we had a customer who was asking about training, but when she saw it was clicker training gave me a look and said “Oh, no, I don’t want that.” Just from the look on her face, I felt sort of like I was trying to sell her snake skin ointment – some hocus pocus, voodoo magic in a box that was going to hypnotize her puppy. She left before I could ask her to explain her dislike for that particular method when it was doubtful that she’d ever tried it. This blog is my attempt at convincing her without even knowing why she reacted so negatively.

Myth #1: It Doesn’t Work
So plain and simple, does she think clicker training is all hog-wash? Maybe a new fad that is going to come and go faster than slap bracelets? The hard science behind clicker training predates most modern trainers. Clicker training is based on some of fundamental principles of learning theory that applies to all animals – yes, even people. It works and has been proven to work when used corrected by thousands of trainers all over the world as well as scientific studies in operant conditioning in a wide range of animals.

Myth #2: They will always have to carry a clicker with them
Not at all, the clicker is used mostly to teach a new behavior. Once the behaviour is learned, there is no reason to continue to use the clicker unless the behaviour needs refreshing or fixing.
However, remember that a new behaviour that looks great at home or at the training school may need reinforcement every time you go to a new environment. When you take a puppy to a new place, with new sounds and new distractions, you should always be prepared to reward a command as if it’s a new command.

Myth #3: It will turn my dog into a robot with a remote
I think this myth comes from the word “clicker” and it’s meaning with a tv remote. That is really the only reason I can think of for this myth. Anyone who has seen a dog in the process of learning something new with the clicker knows this myth could not be further from the truth. I remember watching one of the first puppies that I raised with clicker training learning. She was a great little problem solver, the wheels in her head were always going and she loved to figure it out. When I was teaching her “down on your mat” by free shaping her, she already knew “down” and she already knew that the game we were playing was when she stepped on the mat, I clicked and she got a treat. But when I didn’t click for just stepping on the mat, she cocked her head. She thought about it and offered a sit. I clicked that and she got a treat. She went back to the mat and sat again, since a sit was not my desired behaviour I didn’t want to click it twice, so I didn’t. Again, she stopped to think about it. She took a few steps forward as she thought, then lay down. Those few steps however had led her off the mat. I almost clicked, but hesitated and in my hesitation she quickly realized her error and in a down she shimmied back on to the mat – maintaining the down position and moving herself back to the mat. Eureka! She got a click and a jackpot of treats. Then she went right back to the mat and lay down! She never forgot that behaviour because it was one that she learned and figured out. Watching her learn that behaviour was not like watching a remote control car, it was an eye opening experience into how bright and smart dogs are. She enjoyed the challenge and because she was an active participant in the learning process, she never forgot it. She was creative and experimental in her attempts at figuring it out – you never see creativity in dogs trained with aversive methods!

Myth #4: My dog will learn faster if I just force them to do it!
Nothing could be further from the truth. As the example above shows, the whole process of teaching that puppy to go to her mat and down was maybe two minutes. She was actively involved in the learning and figuring out what I was looking for her to do. Because she played a big part in the learning, she never forgot it. That was a trick I could go back and demo with her any time for classes and she always remembered (even though it was something we didn’t use at home often).

Myth #5: My dog will respect me more if I dominate them; clicker training is too fun for creating respect!
Respect is built on trust. When I train with my dogs they are happy to be working, they look up to me and are eager to please. They know if they do it wrong I am not going to punish them, which makes them feel at ease and able to think. We work together, we play together and they know that I am a fair and benevolent leader. Not a leader forced on them by kicking, choking or worse.

Myth #6: I don't want a "one size fits all" training technique
One size does not fit all and most positive trainers have several tools in their toolbox - from harnesses to management. Clicker training is used on horses, dolphins, chickens, children, dogs, cats ... you name it! Not because it's the only solution all those trainers want to use, but because it's a training method based in real science and operant conditioning which applies across the board. It can be used for aggressive dogs, puppies, scared dogs and just teaching a new trick to a well behaved dog. It is safer than aversive training techniques like prong collars, choke collars or other punishment-based techniques. Here is what science tells us about using punishment in training (Quotes from The Principles of Learning Theory by Michael Domjam, 5th Edition):
 - "Punishment produces an decrease in the overall rate of responding" meaning it shuts the animal down.
- "Punishment suppresses behavior through the same mechanism that produces response suppression to a fear-conditioned stimulus" meaning your dog is behaving out of fear, not respect.
- "Suppression of behavior is not viewed as reflecting the weakening of the punished response. Rather, it is explained in terms of the strengthening of competing avoidance responses." This means that when you crank a dog's prong collar for lunging at another dog, they are not learning not to bark, they are learning to be quiet to avoid the pinch of the prong collar. This may seem like the desired response, but the training has not changed the dog's opinion of the other dog and all of a sudden an approaching dog is the trigger for a crank of the prong collar, which means the dog is learning to like other dogs even less.
You wouldn't imagine putting a prong collar on a child for behaving badly, yet why is okay to put one on your dog. Clicker training is a kind of training that can be used safely on more animals - including children without negative side effects. Meanwhile punishment has been shown to have many negative side effects. 

Anything that I'm missing?
I guess it's possible that because I love clicker training, I am missing something else. Please do me a favor and comment below - tell me what other myths make you think clicker is hocus pocus. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Dog People" Know

You are driving home from a busy weekend at a trial with your dogs. It is late, but if you get home tonight, you can avoid getting a hotel. You are playing over in your mind that judge’s comments, how your cue to your dog was not clear and how you would play it differently next time. Your head is ringing, you have a searing pain in your leg and you realize you are upside down and pinned in your car. Your car! Your dogs! Where are the dogs? You try to turn around and the first thing you see is the passenger-side front door crumpled into the car. What happened? The dogs. You keep trying to turn and now you are screaming their names and partially screaming in terror. You realize the whole side of the car is peeled back like a sardine can. A crate. No - that’s half a crate. Where are the dogs? You hear sirens. Good. Help to find the dogs. You scream louder. Faintly you hear something and stop. It’s coming from in the car with you. Behind some gear and in the back corner behind you, you can hear one of your dogs. Faint whimpers. Someone is at your window and you are reminded that you are upside down by the bizarre face that startles you, then yells “We’re going to get you out of here!”
“My dogs! Please save my dogs!”

Dog people are not just people who own a dog. Dog people are people who are the lucky few who discovered at some point in their lives the incredible bond that can form between a human and their dog. It is not a bond like the one that forms between people. It is a different kind of bond, one that has a special language that transcends species barriers; one that is always there – even when you are in a bad mood; And one that is felt in the deepest pits of who you are. Dog people don’t own dogs, they have a family that includes dogs. Dog people also bond well with other dog people. Maybe they find comfort in being around other people who have hearts big enough to love a dog the way they do. Hearts big enough to handle the hard part of being a dog person. The part of life that dog people have to face is that, without much doubt, there will come a day when their soul mate dies. For most dog people, this will happen over and over in their lives. Most dog people give their entire time on earth to the joy of seeing a dog find happiness in moments with them. They know that their dog loves them and their happiness is so entwined. A celebration at the end of a spectacular trial is not about that trial, it is about the success of the team, the work and the knowledge that they worked together to achieve a goal. Dog people know that their dog understands all of that.

Dog people know that their bond is one that is connected to the deepest part of a person. It is the kind of part that if pulled hard enough could cause a person to come undone. That is why, when tragedy strikes, dog people become more than just individuals, they become a community. When someone who is a dog person, sees or hears of another dog person who has suffered great tragedy, the news isn’t read or heard, it is felt – deep in that part that could pull them inside out. They know that, in that situation, they would need every ounce of strength to stop themselves from coming undone. It is from that deepest part that they find a connection to the tragedy and to the person living it.

From the "Help Elicia find her dogs!" Facebook page.
Elicia, the dogs and her car.
This week, someone in our community was in a terrible accident. We may have never met Elicia who lost two dogs in a tragic accident this week, but we know. That deepest part of us pulled us to her, just as it has pulled us to others in our community in the past. We felt pain at the news of her car accident and the horror in the realization that two dogs were missing somewhere in the desert. Not one of us batted an eyelash at the idea that she checked herself out of the hospital with a punctured lung to go find her dogs (we would do the same). We cried when Nika was found dead and we cried even harder when we heard the joyous news that Tobie had been found alive. The community of dog people from all over sent prayers, forwarded posters, rallied to help and raised an incredible amount of money to help Elicia and her dogs.

For dog people who spend their whole lives putting their dogs first, the first and biggest concern is not for their car or themselves. Their concern is, as it always is, for their dogs. Dog people know that as much as we rely on our dogs for so much, they truly rely on us for more. When a terrible accident happens, it is easy to begin talking about what could have been different, but an accident is an accident. We want to hold them tight, protect them and never let them go. But what dog people know, deep in that part that can pull you undone, is that one day you will have to say good-bye to this being who loves you so deeply and purely. While guilt and remorse may cause us to blame ourselves in the case of an accident, dog people also know that a dog loves too purely to ever think you did anything wrong. Dog people know that one of the reasons that we love our dogs so much is even in their last breathes their only thoughts of you are filled with love and the desire make sure you are safe.

Dog people are a special breed of people, because we do survive even the most tragic of losses. Dog people go on to somehow find more love to give when they meet that next dog for the first time and that dog looks into that deepest part of them and licks their face in understanding.