Creating New Reinforcers – Kathy Sdao Seminar Pt.1

On September 18th and 19th I made the six hour drive back to Endicott, NY, to attend a weekend long seminar hosted by Clicking with Canines (the school where I completed the Karen Pryor Academy).  This was my first time hearing Kathy Sdao speak in person and with over sixteen hours of lecture, I left with so many new ideas that I’ll have months of blogging content in the hopper to draw from now.

Kathy Sdao
Kathy working with Casey Lomonaco and her celeb Saint puppy Cuba

One of the biggest topics of the seminar was the concept of conditioning new reinforcers.  Big revelation right there for me.  We spend a lot of time conditioning new emotions towards stimuli (i.e. getting a dog over fear) and training new behaviors.  But, how often do we go out of our way to create new things that we can use to reward our dogs?

At When Hounds Fly, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to look for reinforcers they can use to train other than food.  Food has limitations – dogs get full, you can’t always have food with you, and sometimes its not practical to use food (i.e. in evaluations and performances where food is not allowed).  Creating new reinforcers is all about using classical conditioning to transfer the value of one reinforcer (i.e. food) to another (something that is not food?)

Over the weekend we saw many clips of Kathy from her University of Hawaii days working with dolphins.  One reinforcer they conditioned was a hand clap.  In one clip, a dolphin performed a behavior on cue and the handler didn’t feed it a fish, but instead, did a big open air hand clap.  The dolphin saw the handclap and became absolutely giddy with joy!  How awesome is that?

In thinking about how we can apply this with dogs – what if we could condition our dogs to react with joy when we do the following things:

– Praise the dog with a hearty “Good boy!” (assuming your dog is currently not that praise motivated)

– Give the dog a thumbs up

– Wink at the dog

Or,

– Transfer the value of food (from a food motivated dog) into a tug toy (for the same dog that is not toy motivated?)

The process of creating a new conditioned reinforcer is relatively easy!  In fact, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already conditioned the following reinforcers:

– Bringing out the leash (your dog wags his tail and gets giddy)

– Clicking (your dog reacts with joy and looks for their treat)

– Walking towards the entrance of When Hounds Fly (your dog starts going crazy looking for the green door)

How did you condition a leash, a click, or coming to school to produce such strong emotions?  Simple – every time you showed your dog any of those 3 things, something wonderful happened immediately after.  The leash is always followed with a walk.  The click is always followed by a treat.  Going through our entrance is always followed by a ton of food-based training.

My personal training goal is to now condition my dogs to have additional reinforcers.  I’m trying to train Petey to become tug toy crazy.  All I’m going to do now is prepare his dinner (in a bowl) and hide it somewhere like a bookshelf or counter.  Then, I’m going to bring out the tug toy and tug with Petey for 15 seconds and then quickly bring down the food bowl and surprise Petey with dinner.  Just by doing that, I’m going to attempt to transfer the emotional value of dinner to the tug toy.

Similarly, for both Duke and Petey, I’m going to try to condition a “thumbs up” as a conditioned reinforcer.  All I’m going to do is when I click for a behavior I like, I’m going to give a thumbs up first and then feed my dogs.  The emotional value of the food reward should bleed backwards into the thumbs up, and what I’ll be looking for is tailwags and a smile when I give my dogs a thumbs up.

So, my challenge to you is – you’ve trained a lot of useful and cute behaviors in your dog.  What new conditioned reinforcer will you start creating?

Update on Canine Cognition Research

Over the weekends of August 21 and 22; and August 28 and 29, canine volunteers and their humans came to visit When Hounds Fly after classes ended to participate in the first set of canine cognition research experiments, conducted by Krista Macpherson from the University of Western Ontario.

It’ll probably take quite a while before any sort of paper or findings are produced, so here’s my lay-person’s attempt at describing what went on, and what I anecdotally observed.  (Krista will have to analyze hours and hours of video footage to actually see if anything meaningful happened)

Krista was interested in determining whether or not dogs understand the concept of timing – so this is the experiment she designed:

Two Manners Minder remote training devices were setup to dispense food on different intervals – one was set to dispense every 15 seconds, and the other was set to dispense every 60 seconds.  After multiple repetitions, were dogs able to figure out how frequently each one paid off, and proactively move towards the machine that was ready to pay off next?

Soley the Icelandic Sheepdog
Soley the Icelandic Sheepdog getting conditioned to the Manners Minder

At first, the dogs were introduced to the Manners Minder machines.  The machines are set to produce an audible tone prior to dispensing (the tone is normally used as an event marker, i.e. clicker, for training).  Relatively quickly, each dog learned that the tone meant that the machine was going to pay.

Next, the machines were moved over and placed on mats created by taping different colored bristol boards together.  The bristol boards serve as a visual indicator for analyzing the position of the dog relative to either Manners Minder during the task.

The owner and the dog start at a chair placed in between the two machines.  The owner is wearing sunglasses, as dogs often can pick up on where humans are looking at for cues and information (i.e. the owner might start staring at the next machine to pay, and the dog will very quickly learn to go to the machine the owner is looking at).

What I found particularly interesting was something that Krista said about the differences between dogs and other animals.  When doing these sorts of tests on rats or pigeons, the variance in behavior is relatively small.  What was particularly interesting to see is the wide range of behaviors and strategies that each dog used.

Some dogs were very thoughtful and deliberate in when they chose to move back and forth between machines.  Others used brute force and just simply went back and forth between machines almost non-stop.  Many dogs (especially ones trained using shaping) initially believed that behaviors they performed could influence whether a machine would pay out (common behaviors included intense staring, pawing, mouthing, nose-targeting different parts of the machine – my Beagle, Petey, offered a play bow to the 60 second machine; Arlo, Emily’s hound, offered a favorite trick – the armpit sniff – to the machine; Farley, Jenn’s Beagle, howled at the machine as if to say “Feed me now!!!”).

A handful of dogs appeared to really be “thinking about it” and there were times where it seemed like they went over to the 60 second machine to get their payout right on time.  My Beagle, Petey, just decided to pick up one machine and drag it closer to the other so he didn’t have to travel as far!

Some of the dogs are highly trained (agility dogs, advanced obedience, or just a really well trained family dog) and others were pretty raw (brand new rescue, zero training) – since the activity has nothing to do with performing behavior, it seemed to me that trained dogs did not necessarily figure things out faster or better.

Here’s a few more photos I took of some of the dogs that volunteered in August.  If your dog tells you they’d like to participate, just email me at andre@whenhoundsfly.com and I will include you in future calls for volunteers.  Krista is going to be running another set of experiments on the weekend of the 18th and 19th.

Farley the Beagle
Farley the Beagle's first taste of Roll Over!
Arlo the Hound
Arlo and Emily getting ready to start
Ruin the Rotty
Ruin doing a practice run while wearing his Thundershirt
Petey the Beagle
Petey frantically running back and forth on a practice run
Kaiya the Siberian Husky
Kaiya's "thinking about it"

Our first post! Welcome!

Hello there,

This is our first post!  We decided to create a separate blog from the main When Hounds Fly website.  The purpose of this blog is to allow us to more frequently update the community about things that we discover along our journey and mission of helping dogs and their owners live happier lives.

The types of content you’ll see here include:

  • Photos and videos of our students and their dogs doing amazing or cute things.
  • Review of books and videos that help us learn more.
  • Information about upcoming events and seminars on all things related to dogs.
  • New developments from the world of dog cognition, behavior, and training.

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