Unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation about clicker training (and food-based training). While many of our new students are excited and eager to finally have a clicker training school that isn’t a two hour drive away from Downtown Toronto, some come to us a bit unsure or a bit on the fence – so if you are on the fence, this article is for you. Here are the top 7 misconceptions about clicker training that we hear when we meet new students.
Myth 1. I have to carry a clicker with me at all times or else the dog won’t perform.
Truth: Clickers are only used in the learning phase of a new behavior. After a behavior is nearly fluent, it is no longer needed.
Myth 2. If I train with food, I will need to have food with me at all times, forever, or else the dog won’t perform.
Truth: Lure-reward food-based training will create food dependency. Lure-reward training is not the same as clicker training, even though some lure-reward trainers use clickers incorrectly. Clicker trainers do not use food as a lure (or if they do, they use them extremely sparingly). If you train properly, you will not need to show your dog a treat first before it performs, nor will you necessarily have to feed your dog every time it performs. In fact, the opposite is true – if you continue to feed your dog for every correct response for too long, the dog won’t perform reliably. Clicker training actually requires you adopt what we call a variable schedule of reinforcement – in plain English, phasing out food.
Myth 3. Dogs get fat being trained with food.
Truth: Food rewards are prepared so small that they represent a relatively small percentage of total food intake per week. Also, in low-distraction environments or for easy behaviors, a dog’s regular meal can be used for training. I’ve never met a clicker trained dog that was overweight – most are pretty svelte since they often compete in dog sports as their training progresses.
Myth 4. If I train with food, the dog will beg for food.
Truth: Feeding your dog at the dinner table teaches them to beg at the dinner table. Giving food out by hand for no reason will teach a dog to beg for food. Training with food teaches the dog that food is only given in exchange for work performed, and only when we request the work. Well trained dogs actually never beg for food because the circumstances in which they can earn food is so black and white, they understand when it’s not available and when it’s available – and that is on our terms.
Myth 5. Clicker Trainers are “New Age-y” and “Soft” on their dogs
Truth: False!!! The best clicker trainers are extremely hard on their dogs. We are hard on the criteria we require our dogs to perform to in order to earn reinforcement. We are stingy on keeping access to rewards and reinforcement contingent on performing behaviors. Since nobody wants to carry around food forever, myself included, I use everything else that the dog wants in life to reinforce training. If my dogs don’t go into their crate and lay down, they don’t eat. If they don’t sit and stay while I open the door, the door never opens. If they don’t keep the leash loose while we are walking towards the dog park, we never get to the dog park.
What is true though is we will never use physical punishment in training because it is unnecessary – you can train reliable behaviors and proof them against distractions without having to inflict pain.
Myth 6. The dog will hear clicks from other students in class and get confused.
Truth: Dogs are experts at discriminating. Only clicks that come from the handler result in a food reward, so dogs quickly learn to ignore clicks that come from other directions.
Myth 7. Clicker training is a fad and it will be gone soon.
Truth: Clicker training comes from the work of B.F. Skinner and one of the earliest examples of clicker training was his graduate students, Marian and Keller Breland, clicker training pigeons to assist in aerial bombing in World War II. In the 1960s, Karen Pryor brought clicker training to dolphin training, and today it is now used to train practically every species of animal known to man. If it is good enough for the military and good enough for Sea World, isn’t it good enough for your family pet?
Hopefully you are reading this article BEFORE your new puppy arrives! Puppyhood is a very brief period of a dog’s life and getting it right from the start will save you a lot of heartache and headache down the road. Here are our Top 5 Puppy Training Tips to help you out!
Tip 1: Socialization
Puppy socialization is the process of exposing your new puppy to a wide variety of experiences in a safe, comfortable, and positive way. Puppies under the age of 14 weeks are extremely impressionable and early, positive experiences prior to this age can help ensure that your puppy grows up to be confident. The biggest mistake puppy owners make is thinking their dog is “too small” or “too fragile” and should stay at home until they get older. These dogs will never be as confident or relaxed as they could be. Moral of the story – take your puppy with you everywhere!
Tip 2: Disease Prevention
Puppies do not have a fully functional immune system and as such should not be exposed to dogs of unknown vaccination history or other areas of potential contamination. There is a particularly strong strain of Parvovirus that is prevalent in Toronto that will absolutely cripple a young puppy. Until your veterinarian advises, do not take your puppy to places like the dog park! Do attend a Puppy Socialization class, or arrange for play dates with adult dogs whose health background you are aware of.
Tip 3: House Breaking
The easiest and most effective way to house break a dog is through crate training. It is cruel to NOT crate train a dog, since a dog that is crate trained will love their crate and will be comfortable staying there for long periods of time. A dog that loves their crate can go anywhere (air travel, dog shows, dog sport events, hotels, car rides, etc.). A puppy should not have unsupervised access around the house – you are just asking for accidents to happen everywhere and the more they have accidents, the harder it is to house break your new puppy.
Tip 4: Chewing, Biting, and Destructive Behavior
Dogs chew. Puppies chew like crazy as they teethe and this will continue even as the adult teeth come out. Confine your puppy in an X-pen when they are unsupervised so they can’t chew inappropriate items. Make sure your puppy has a wide assortment of chew toys, and help them develop a preference to chew items like marrow bones or kongs by feeding meals out of them. Also, if your puppy is mouthy on you, don’t punish your dog – just put the dog away and give them something else to chew on. Nipping goes away on its own.
Tip 5: Begin Training and Establish House Rules on Day One
With positive reinforcement training, an animal can be trained as soon as it can see and hear. We start training puppies at When Hounds Fly at 8 weeks if possible; some breeders begin clicker training weeks before that. The earlier you start, the better, since early clicker training helps develop a thinking and creative dog early in their life. Similarly, set clear rules for your dog on day one. It is easier to relax them later, than take away privileges later. For example, if you know your Great Dane shouldn’t be on the bed or couch, don’t let your Great Dane puppy on the bed or couch, ever! Or, if you know it’ll be a problem if your soon-to-be 100 lb Newfoundland jumps on grandma, don’t greet and cuddle a jumping 20 lb Newfoundland puppy! Also, a puppy that is frequently left home alone for short amounts of time is far less likely to develop separation anxiety later in life.
We encourage all new puppy owners to enroll in our Puppy Socialization class! While we take puppies up to 16 weeks of age, we would encourage anyone getting a new puppy to start sooner and not delay.
Confused by the myriad of options at the pet store when it comes to buying the right collar for your dog? Here’s a brief introduction and review of the common types of humane collars and harnesses on the market, how they work, and what they’re best for.
Flat Collar, Buckle Collar
What is it? A basic collar that goes around the neck of the dog. They can be fastened with belt-style buckles or clips.
What are they good for? Simple and inexpensive. Can be used to keep tags/ID on a dog in conjunction with harnesses or a head collar. Flat collars are best used for small to large dogs that can loose leash walk reliably.
What are the downsides? Dogs that aren’t trained to loose leash walk can choke themselves, causing stress to the eyes, neck, trachea, and even thyroid. This is especially dangerous for flat faced dogs that can suffer from a prolapsed eyeball from the pressure.
Front Clip Harness (Sense-ation Harness, Easywalk Harness, Freedom Harness)
What is it? A harness where the leash fastens to the chest. The design of the harness discourages pulling.
What are they good for? All dogs! But especially dogs that pull.
What are the downsides? Toy dogs, or short dogs will likely have their leash get caught between their legs frequently due to the attachment point. Harnesses can be chewed and destroyed if left on while unattended.
Rear Clip Harness (H-style harness, Vest harness, Buddy Belts, etc.)
What is it? A harness where the leash fastens to the back of the harness (along the dog’s back).
What are they good for? Toy dogs, or very short dogs, to protect their fragile necks and keep the leash near the top of the dog so they don’t get caught up between their legs.
What are the downsides? Rear clip harnesses do not reduce pulling. Harnesses can be chewed and destroyed if left on while unattended.
What is it? A collar that has a limited-slip component that tightens the leash becomes taught. They slip over the dog’s head.
What are they good for? Dogs with thick necks and small heads (sighthounds) that can back out and slip out of flat collars.
What are the downsides? Frequently they are misused as choke collars (sized too small, when tight, can choke and even suffocate a dog). Dogs can get caught in a martingale collar and hang themselves.
Head collar (i.e. Halti, Gentle Leader, Snoot Loop)
What is it? A collar that loops behind the dog’s ears and over their muzzle.
What are they good for? Dogs that are mildly reactive to various stimuli (dogs, people, cats, squirrels, etc.) as if required, you can redirect the dog’s gaze. By design they also discourage pulling, even more so than a front clip harness.
What are the downsides? Head collars attach to a very sensitive part of a dog’s neck and if the handler jerks the leash, or a dog lunges on the leash while wearing a head collar, their neck can be injured. Many people mistake the muzzle loop as a muzzle and may think your dog is aggressive.
Here are two books that we consider to be the absolute gold-standard in puppy raising/training books today.
We’re sharing this because we want to make sure that our prospective students get started on the right foot. Many of the best selling books on dog training are actually full of inaccurate information, or place the emphasis on often irrelevant concerns.
Unfortunately, neither of these outstanding books are available at your local bookstore. Fortunately, both are easy to order, and both are available as eBooks.
Our Top Pick – Puppy Start Right by Kenneth Martin, DVM, and Debbie Martin, RVT, VTS (Behavior)
Ideal for puppies and dogs of all ages, this book is a must-have resource for dog trainers, puppy socialization class instructors, and dog parents.
Whether you are raising a new puppy or have an adolescent or adult dog, Puppy Start Right can help solve many common nuisance behaviors. Puppy Start Right is a positive approach to problem-solving, prevention, and training—without the use of punishment.
Foundation training exercises are perfect for the household companion dog or the future star in competitive dog sports. Exercises include teaching your dog to focus and offer attention, targeting behaviors including a place or bed cue, the recall, sits and downs (stay cues), loose-leash walking, and the “bring,” “drop it,” and “leave it” cues. Enjoy step-by-step instructions with corresponding photos!
A Close Second – Available as an eBook! – Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Sophia Yin, DVM
With 176 pages and over 400 photos, Dr. Yin explains why puppies do what they do, how even minor modifications in their environment and your inter- actions can dramatically affect their behavior, and how quickly they can learn when you set them up for success. This visual guide provides readers with a step-by-step plan for bonding with their pup, learning to communicate clearly, and providing the pup with essential life skills.
How Your Puppy Developed Before You Got Her
Why Start Training So Soon
A Foolproof Potty Training Program
Dr.Yin’sLearn to Earn Program for Puppies
Socializing Your Pup to Dogs, People, and Handling
I won free (nearly free; I had to pay taxes and airport fees) plane tickets to New York, so I went on a short three day, two night visit mid-week and crashed with friends. Here are some things I did related to dogs in NYC!
On the Street
I spied a lot of signs politely (or bluntly) telling owners to keep their dogs off grass and away from flower beds.
Within 20 minutes of arriving in Chelsea, I also saw something quite amazing. A commercial dog walker with three dogs in his group was standing on Eighth Avenue chatting with some people on the street, when another dog walked past. A daschund in his care started lunging and barking at the dog walking by. I was expecting him to correct the dog, but instead, I was surprised that he bent down and shoved treats in the daschund’s mouth. OK, so the timing was a bit off, but even though he fed after barking, the daschund got some counter-conditioning points. I was floored and told him so.
There are a lot of dog walkers on-leash walking their groups all around town midday. In the city where everything is outsourced (wash and fold laundry, house cleaning, food, etc.) it is no wonder every dog has a dog walker.
Off-leash spaces are limited in NYC… although Central Park is off-leash for all dogs from dawn to 9am, and 9pm to until closing, so if you’re a dog lover who wants to move to Manhattan, I’d think it was pretty important to be near Central Park…or else you are stuck using dog runs like these:
While checking out the waterfront, along Pier 40, I stumbled upon this larger run. It was fully paved and kind of smooth, so the dogs had to stop short or else they’d run into the far fence. Check out this 9 year old Welsh Terrier playing with this Pitbull-cross.
Puppies for Sale
I was shocked to run into this chain of pet stores that sell puppies in the window. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I discovered that New York State is a big producer of puppy mill puppies. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Missing Duke and Petey, we introduced ourselves (with permission of course) to this lovely Beagle named Layla. She just moved to New York City from Minnesota. She has a wiggly bum and loves to give kisses.
The School for the Dogs
I was warmly welcomed to Anna Jane Grossman (Annie to her friends) and Kate Senisi’s The School for the Dogs. I met Annie at ClickerExpo 2011 – she is a KPACTP and did her program at the same time with Mirkka, under Steve Benjamin.
The School for the Dogs is steps away from Union Square. We talked dogs, shop, ate bagels and cream cheese, and played with Annie’s dog, Amos. They have the use of an amazing space for classes!
If you haven’t checked it out before, Annie is also the editor for TheDogs (www.thedo.gs) a site for dog lovers, where I periodically contribute articles.
That’s it! Three days, two nights in Manhattan, and I am glad to be back home to Toronto.
Also a special thanks to Katie Hood from oh my dog! dog walking for house sitting and taking care of Petey and Duke for the three days we were gone. They are not easy little monsters to care for!
What’s really interesting is their area of study is around canine social behaviour. Read this:
We are especially interested in the behaviour and cognition of all types of dogs (domestic dogs and wild canids). Our main work is focused on canine social behaviour: how do dogs communicate and interact with each other, and what factors affect these social interactions? We are also interested in how factors like a dog’s temperament, or personality, influence social behaviours, and whether measuring stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, can give us insight into how these factors interact with each other.
Studying social interactions between dogs in multi-dog households
Whether dogs and owners have similar hormone-driven bonds as infants and mothers (of the same species)
Analyzing dog behaviour at dog park, considering factors like sex, age, etc.
Considering there are 3.5 million owned dogs in Canada (the actual number is probably higher, as many are unregistered), you would be surprised at how little scientific research is being done on our best friends. At ClickerExpo 2010, Dr. Patricia McConnell urged young people to pursue advanced degrees and make canis familiaris the focus of their studies. Similarily, at ClickerExpo 2011, Dr. Clive Wynne was able to list all the universities around the world that were studying dogs – including the UWO Dog Cognition Lab, where our friend Krista Macpherson is working. Surprisingly few! There just isn’t as much in the way of research going on with dogs as you’d imagine.
Although our industry is temporarily losing one of its best trainers, and When Hounds Fly is losing an irreplaceable instructor, and all of us here are going to miss her dearly over the next two years, I am so happy that a brilliant dog trainer like Julie is going to be contributing to the body of knowledge that will help all of us be better dog trainers and dog owners.
On a personal note
While we patiently await for Julie to help everyone by expanding our knowledge of dogs by completing her research project (we can thank her then), few people know that she has already helped me in a number of profound ways.
When my partner and I first got Duke in 2006, and he was causing trouble and picking fights at Trinity Bellwoods, she taught us how to teach him to fetch a ball (Give him a treat when he brings it back, duh). That kept us sane and allowed us to keep exercising him and he learned to ignore dogs and stop fighting. Without that, who knows if I would have ever made it to become a dog trainer and open this school?
She was also the first person to email and introduce herself to me in January 2010, the same week I opened the school. At the time I wasn’t even sure if I’d make the month’s rent, or if I could actually quit my day job, but she expressed interest in teaching here and it inspired me to grow the school so we could have the best instructors in the city. One year after that email, we launched registration for her super-popular Tricks Class.
Fast forward to today – two and a half years from that first email, I’m now super proud of all the talent that teaches here.
Although she’s leaving Toronto, we’re going to continue working on our latest project, which is our online/distance dog training school, at Treatpouch.com.
So, to Julie, thank you for everything.
Were you a past student of Julie’s, either when she was teaching out of a community centre years ago, or at the old It’s A Dog’s Life, or were you lucky enough to take her Tricks Class at When Hounds Fly? I’m sure she’d like to hear from you and see what you and your dog’s up to – her email is julie at roverachiever.com
p.s. Her dog walking company, Rover Achiever, lives on – Rachael Johnston, one of our instructors here at When Hounds Fly, now walks Julie’s old dog walking groups along with her other team members, Emma and Matt. You would be lucky to have any of them as your dog’s walker!
Sorry for the delay (gasp, it’s been nearly a month) since posting last, and entering, and competing at my first Rally-O Trial. For those that follow me on Facebook and Twitter well you know Petey did just fine – two runs, and he earned his first two legs, with a score of 183 and 186.
Things I learned:
The crating area is really tight. You can see what it looks like here. Generally the dogs in attendance that day were quiet, but there were a few that would bark sometimes.
Getting your dog used to crating is a must. Petey is decent at crating now. I can even leave him there and attend the competitor’s meeting, walk the course, go to the bathroom, etc. without hassle.
Warm Up Area. There was a space in the crating area reserved for practicing. I took Petey out periodically while we waited our turn to practice.
Things Falling Apart in the Ring. In the practice area, Petey looked as good and was working as good as the absolute best practice sessions I had at home or at When Hounds Fly. As it was approaching my turn to take Petey into the ring, he was in the ringside area awaiting his turn – we kept on practicing. Wooo, he looked hot. Sharp pivots, amazing focus, etc. So much so that other people in the area took note.
As soon as was entered the ring, I put Petey in heel position. The judge said I could start, and I took my first step forward and – Petey pulled like a freight train to go sniff the first station sign – they used terracotta pots to hold the signs up. I couldn’t help but laugh. I didn’t get stressed, but I suddenly realized that my expectations had to go down and I would need to go back to the drawing board.
Pretty much all my deductions that weekend were for tight leash, caused by Petey forging ahead to go sniff something interesting.
We did good enough to get a passing score each time. Here’s Petey with his two ribbons.
Get Terra Cotta Pots. They smell interesting. They’re novel. They look like little paint can perches. I need to proof them as things to ignore on the course. A lot of the tight leashes on my first run were caused by targeting the terra cotta pots.
Going back to ClickerExpo 2010 – Cecilie Koste had a few pearls of wisdom that I went back to. 1) Your dog should volunteer to get things started. No kissy noises or nagging or begging your dog to work – that reinforces a lack of focus. 2) Your dog is ready for trial when he performs perfectly the FIRST time, the exercises are backchained, and he is used to working on the required schedule of reinforcement. I am short on a couple of points here (future blog post?). Trial a dog like this too soon and you will have a ring-wise dog (a dog that knows no or limited primary reinforcement occurs in the ring. Or, I guess with correction trainers, that no or limited corrections occur in the ring)
Fun Match – yesterday with Mirkka, I attended a Rally-O Fun Match at All About Dogs. I tested out a few theories. The courses were CARO Rally-O Novice courses, and the environment really did replicate that of Red Barn. A few things I tried:
1) I waited at the Start Sign for Petey to volunteer to get started. Instead of feeling pressure to get moving, I left him sniff the area near the start sign. When he volunteered eye contact, I cued a few simple behaviors. He was ready. I was ready. We started the course. Much better. I have a feeling that at the trial, when I entered the ring, and I was asked if I was ready – I was, but Petey wasn’t finished investigating the area.
2) I stationed him in a crate, but kept the door open. He stays inside and is more relaxed than with the crate door closed. This might keep his anxiety down and allow him to save more for the ring.
We weren’t scored but I feel like Petey did much better at the Fun Match, so I am going to keep on working on some of these theories and get him ready some more. I’m going to wait till September before entering another trial at this point.
Last point: Red Barn Centre in Barrie is a great venue, and the judges, volunteers, staff, and other competitors at the CARO trial were really a friendly bunch of people. Not a single sour face at the venue. If you aren’t sure about trying, I would strongly encourage you to give it a shot!
Very last point: THANK YOU, Petey, for doing an amazing job. You have come a long way from the shelter rescue that didn’t even know how to sit.
Petey had kennel cough (or perhaps just a cold) for a week so not much training until recently. But he’s as good as he’ll be for this weekend so we’re done.
All that’s left is to make sure I don’t choke. This is the first time I have done a “dog sport” but not the first time doing timed, scored competition. I used to be active in amateur motorsports. Appropriately, the sport I competed most in was autocross, which was also a solo sport and involved a sea of pylons.
Things I learned from motorsports (especially autocross, since it looks like a confusing sea of pylons)
Visualize the entire course in your head while you’re waiting your turn. I used to sit in the car and drive the course, including when to throttle, brake, turn, shift.
Once on the course, look ahead! We were always at least two stations ahead in our head, so that nothing would surprise us, and we could plan our entries efficiently.
So hopefully my previous experiences will help me stay focused and cool.
All that’s left is to cue clean and consistently.
One exercise that I did with the Karen Pryor Academy was to demonstrate a ten part behaviour chain. We had to have the ten behaviours pre-selected, trained to stimulus control, and also cues clearly defined. When under pressure, there’s a tendency for our cues to change (due to stress, our bodies stiffen, our voices change tone, or we just totally forget what the cue that we’ve trained for is) so the better we can define our cues and practice them, the more likely they will stand up under fire.
So here are all my cues for the behaviours needed for CARO Rally Novice. Within the rules of the sport, I chose them to incorporate verbal + visual components simultaneously, because Petey is terrible at verbal cue discrimination.
(This is the next blog post on interesting things I learned from the recent PABA Conference at the University of Guelph. See Part 1 to learn about it plus Dr. William “Deak” Helton.)
Before I begin let me confess two things: One, I absolutely love watching Schutzhund. I say watch because 1) I’ve never trained bitework or tracking 2) I don’t really own a dog that’s “suitable” for it. I think I like it for the same reason I like participating in triathlons. I just think it’s amazing for a single athlete to excel in multiple disciplines.
Two: While I am training my Beagle-mix Petey for Rally Obedience, I do have an eye to the future, so it’s no surprise to my friends I one day want a Malinois or Tervuren. Objectively they just look cool (see Hannah Branigan and Gambit):
But besides looking cool… why do I want one? Why do I need one? Dr. Helton’s lecture on working dogs also included QUITE a bit of interesting information on Breed Intelligence/Trainability and the overall Selection Template for working dogs. Maybe I don’t need a Belgian Shepherd after all?
Stanley Coren’s Rankings (1994)
His book, “The Intelligence of Dogs” suggested that Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Dobermans were the most intelligent and…
Afghans, Basenjis, Bulldogs, and Chow-Chows were the least intelligent.
Most dog enthusiasts have heard of the book, but what you may not know is how the rankings were achieved. It was from surveying AKC and CKC judges for their personal opinions about dog breed intelligence. Not exactly objective or quantifiable data.
Dog Sports Data Holds Answers
Helton went to the world of dog sports to seek out data. Competitive sports of any sort is useful for scientists as a) everything is measured and data is accurately tracked and b) scoring and timing is consistent since that’s required for fairness and honesty in competition.
Going to agility, he found two interesting facts:
Precision (frequency of faults) was equal across all breeds, assuming level of practice and experience of dog and handler were equal
Speed (time through course) was better for “elite breeds”
No mystery there – Border Collies are designed to move fast. But, all dogs can be trained to have reliable contacts or enter weave poles accurately.
Scott and Fuller – A Better (and Older) Study:
So let’s forget about Coren. Instead let’s look to Scott and Fuller:
“We can conclude that all breeds show about the same average level of performance in problem solving, provided they can be adequately motivated, provided physical differences and handicaps do not affect the tests..” Scott and Fuller (1965, p.258)
Physical Characteristics Are Key:
So, if all breeds are generally equal in intelligence, then it’s the physical traits of the dogs we should be focused on.
If you’re looking for speed, we’d want a dog like a Greyhound. They are built for running.
If you’re looking for a fighter, we’d want a dog like a Pitbull. They are built for fighting.
Here are a few other considerations:
Size and Thermoregulation – dogs that are too large will overheat; dogs that are too small will freeze. That’s why sled dogs are pretty small – they are designed to dissipate heat while sledding long distances.
Ocular Overlap – Dogs with eyes spread far apart (sighthounds) have less visual acuity in the centre, but are designed to see the horizon. Dogs with more centre-set eyes have more acuity in the centre and see less on the peripheral. These dogs can see what’s in front, and as a result, are more focused on what’s in front of them, and less distracted by things happening on the horizon – obviously making them less distracted during training.
Built for Speed vs Built for Biting: the broader, wider mouths of dogs like the Pitbull are designed to cause maximum damage during biting, whereas the mouth of a Greyhound would deliver far less bite strength.
The Goldilocks Rule
But, historically, dogs serve many purposes, and the most useful ones do multiple tasks well (going back to Schutzhund – obedience, tracking, and protection). So trainers have a bias towards dogs that aren’t too big, aren’t too small, are fast enough, but can kick ass enough. (German Shepherd!) Helton suggests its no wonder why all the dogs favoured by the AKC and CKC judges are all roughly the same size, shape, and even generally have similar shaped heads.
Perhaps the most important consideration for breed selection is simply convenience of the size and shape to the trainer. Let me tell you, Petey is a little dog, and it is a pain to feed him during heelwork training. A dog whose mouth is exactly where your hand is during heelwork is a lot easier to train. When I was working with Chase, the Jack Russell, his physical size required me to get down on the floor and use props to elevate him:
Since these “Not too big, not too small, just right” sized dogs are easier to observe (and hence reinforce accurately), and comfortable to train (no bending, crouching, or gymnastics required), that would bias trainers towards them. If I had two dogs – a Daschund, and a Labrador Retriever, I would most likely spend more time training the Lab, since I would get tired of having to hunch over the Doxie for extended periods of time!
Innate Skill or Born With It?
Helton suggested that practice is the most reliable predictor of success.
However, he shared a really interesting study done by Slabbert and Rasa (1997) – Observational learning of an acquired maternal behaviour pattern by working dog pup: an alternative training method?
Puppies that were allowed to stay with their mother and simply OBSERVE their mother perform work were significantly more likely to become skilled at that work later in life.
Helton went on to explain that this may explain why there is a tendency in human family trees to see multiple generations pursue the same craft – grandfather was a doctor, dad was a doctor, and the son is a doctor. Is there a doctor gene? A more likely explanation is early role models greatly affect early socialization and gives the child a huge head start in getting practice in the skill. The child of a professional hockey coach is much more likely to be dragged around to hockey rinks before they can even walk, and have a huge advantage to his peers when he finally hits the ice.
Perhaps keeping your border collie puppy with mom for a bit longer, and letting him watch mom do weave entries and contacts could become part of raising the perfect agility dog?
Love Your Little Dog
Maybe you’re like me and have a little dog. Fine, maybe Petey doesn’t look as cool as Gambit because he’s tiny, but that’s OK – I’ve gotten used to having to crouch to feed in position.
There are many jobs out there where little dogs SHOULD be the ideal candidate.
Like for Search and Rescue. Why would we want a big heavy dog like a German Shepherd, that occupies more space on transport, requires more food and water, and can’t crawl into small spaces, when we could have more Momo the Long-Haired Chihuahuas searching for victims?
Or more seriously why would I want a heavy dog that will set off mines doing mine detection, when a Beagle or a Jack Russell would be light enough NOT to cause us to get blown up?
Schutzhund For All?
And maybe I could try bitework with Petey. After all, he is part Jack Russell, just like Claudia Romard’s Mr. Murphy. After all, he’s just as intelligent as a German Shepherd.
I just came back from the third and final day of the Professional Animal Behavior Associates symposium for 2011 – this year, the presentation was focused on working dogs (search and rescue, detection, etc.) I’ll let you read about the lineup here. The PABA conference draws a lot of folks from across Canada, including my friend Katherine Mutzke from Clever K9 Sports in Squamish, BC, Alice Fisher of Dogsmart from Vancouver, Carolyn Clark, Karen Pryor Academy Faculty, and Nicky Barnham of Carolark in Ottawa.
This year I knew I had to go, because I knew absolutely nothing about the topics being presented, and only knew of one of the presenters speaking (Steve White). Having no expectations going in, I went in and right off the bat with the first speaker I was delighted with what I was learning!
The headlining speaker that I found brought the most new information to the table for me was Dr. William “Deak” Helton, the author of “Canine Ergonomics – The Science of Working Dogs“. He had a ton to say, and MOST of what he said I had never heard of before – enough to fill multiple blog posts for weeks… so in the interests of brevity I am going to write about his discussion of the Viligence Decrement. I believe it has tremendous application to us in pet dog training, because it can explain why our dogs fatigue and stop working in class or in dog sport. In class I often point out to students that their dogs “look fried” or “check out”. Here, a scientist was actually going to explain what might be going on in our dogs when this happens!
(Before I begin, you have to understand a bit about my background – I stopped taking sciences in Grade 11 – public school, I focused on Liberal Arts, and in university, I majored in business. So go easy on me if I get anything wrong)
Vigilance Decrement – What is it?
Vigilance decrement is defined as “deterioration in the ability to remain vigilant for critical signals with time, as indicated by a decline in the rate of the correct detection of signals”
In real life, it is as simple as an airport security officer missing contraband items hidden in baggage under x-ray, or a working dog failing to detect and indicate the presence of a landmine. For the airport security officer, that might be the shape of items on screen that fuzzily match what contraband looks like. For a detection dog, that might be the scent of a landmine. In both cases, shapes and smells are just signals.
In my opinion it’s reasonable to assume that a verbal or visual cue is also just a signal. A cue is a signal to indicate there is an opportunity to perform a behaviour and earn reinforcement. Why would a dog respond to a cue one minute, and assuming motivation is sufficient, and the cue is delivered identically, why would a dog not respond to the cue?
Important to note – we are always assuming that the learner is sufficiently motivated. For training, we would assume the food is appealing enough, or the toy desirable enough to want to continue doing work.
Two Competing Theories of Vigilance Decrement
The first theory is boredom. The task is so easy and repetitive that the subject withdraws effort and stops paying attention – and the subject is then distracted and daydreams.
The second theory is fatigue/resource theory. Mental energy is limited, and task performance draws on mental energy. Unless replenished, mental energy is depleted.
Helton does not believe the boredom model holds true. If it held true, you should get greater vigilance decrements if you gave people easier tasks vs. harder ones. In fact, the opposite was true – in studies with humans (male and female) and rats, the harder the signal detection test, the faster the decrease in performance.
In plain English – if I gave you a book on quantum mechanics and said “hey read this”, you’d probably look very bored by page three. But it’s not because it’s too easy – it’s because it requires a ton of mental energy to follow it.
Applied to dog training? In class, many students (especially newer ones, with greener dogs) often attribute the dog’s unresponsiveness as boredom. If a dog stops responding to a known cue in class, assuming sufficient motivation, it’s NOT because their bored, but in fact, have run out of mental energy. I believe their brain is no longer detecting the signal/discriminative stimulus.
Evolutionary Function of “Shutting Down”
Simple! As Helton explained, the brain is not unlike an engine. Excessive use will cause damage, so by shutting down, it is protecting itself. The brain, literally, heats up from use, which is why brain damage can occur with high fever, and we’re mentally more capable if the brain is kept cold. Helton shared that you can measure the temperature inside the ear canal as an accurate way to monitor when the subject is going to burn out!
Refilling Mental Energy
Through rest! That’s why agility people swear by Crate Games – so mental energy is preserved or restored between performance.
Drawing from human-models, Helton shared his model for predicting whether the expert (in this case the detection dog) would correctly respond:
P(A) = sS – eFEF + (ex EX + vV)
Probability of Attending = Salience of of the Olfactory Target – Body Movements + Expectations + Value of Information
Salience = How big/obvious is the target?
Body Movements = How much does the dog have to worry about navigating the environment while working? i.e. searching in dangerous rubble vs. a lab environment
Expectations = If you only train the dog to search the floors, he’ll never think to sniff up high where the item may be hidden
Value of Information = I think this means the importance of the consequence to the dog – What’s in it for me if I respond?
Applying his Model to Scent Detection
Rather than have the dog do the search on-site, Helton suggests the dog could stay inside a controlled laboratory environment, and just be given air samples of the targets to smell inside the lab. For container search, for example, air samples of containers could be captured and then brought to the dog to sniff one by one. The salience increases, and body movements are minimized. Another example would be for detecting breast cancer. Rather than have the dog sniff the actual patient, patient breath samples would be collected, and then sent to the dog.
I have thought about how I might apply this to training (and already do):
Salience = make cues easy to discriminate for the dog. If verbal cues, avoid using similar sounding cues (down and bow). Keep them clean and consistent so mental energy doesn’t have to be wasted thinking “was that really the sit cue? or was it something else?)
Distractions/Interruptions/Noise = I think that anything that causes mental energy to be expended, either consciously or subconsciously, will cause performance to drop quickly. So that’s why we follow good training practices to train with high intensity and make it easy for the dog to focus and preserve mental energy.
Expectations = I think this closely relates to the process of generalization and gradually training in as many environments, with as many variables (over time) as possible.
Value of Information = This is just creating good reinforcers, to make sure that our cues are worth paying attention to and acting upon.
Other Ideas (Buck Rogers Stuff?)
Random musings, but…
Should I put an ice pack on Petey’s head between training sessions? Or right before we do our runs at the CARO trial?
Caffeine reduces vigilance decrement in people AND honeybees (yes, it was in the presentation). Caffeine pills for Petey before training sessions or at least trials?
Fun Fact (PABA Related)
The Canadian Border Services Agency’s detection programs were created with the help of the University of Guelph. Their dogs are trained using positive reinforcement – they work for a ball! Three working dogs were brought for demos over the course of the weekend. This black lab cross was too much for his past owners – not a good house pet for the average dog owner – but perfect for working dog life – and worked like a champ looking for currency in the room (he catches people that lie when they say they aren’t carrying over $10,000 in currency).
The next post I’ll do about this topic will delve into Helton’s findings regarding breeds and dog characteristics and their intelligence and suitability for work. As a Beagle owner I loved hearing this. Maybe I don’t need that Malinois after all… ?