Featured

No-fault No Reward Markers

IMG_6235By Jenny Ruth Yasi, Head Trainer Whole Dog Camp

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This was from before we were “Nana and Papa,” when Whole Dog Camp was on Peaks Island. We were demonstrating paired walking, where we reinforced this crazy puppy Tigerlily for walking beside us by opening the space between us as a response to her hanging back, and closing the space between us (with her behind it) as a response to her surging forwards. It works really well for partners teaching a puppy!

I love the internet’s ability to allow trainers to discuss and share experiences regarding controversial geeky training devices like no reward markers. I tend to defend the use of trained NRM, while also telling trainers, “stop saying no! Stop telling your dog that he’s wrong!”

To explain that, I wanted to tell this story of my almost 4 year old grandson, who is learning to brush his teeth.

He was spending the night, and so I gave him his own special spongebob vibrating toothbrush and stood him in front of a hall mirror to brush his teeth. Weird for him to have a Nana who is also a dog trainer, because  I know I’m helping train my grandson to brush his teeth! And frankly,  he wasn’t doing it perfectly, but there is no way I would ever dream of doing anything but praising his awesome toothbrushing. After I admired the toothbrushing for quite some time and he was done, I recall I did suggest one more round! And it was the kind of toothpaste you’re supposed to swallow, so that part didn’t matter.

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We didn’t have to say “no.” Bee was just checking, just in case it was for her, but it wasn’t.

 

We don’t need to criticize puppies, children, partners,  friends or most of all, OURSELVES. It’s empty and unhelpful when we cue disapproval, “wrong,” and turn an interaction sour, with some idea that this is wrong or not good enough, but uncertain, or even no idea, about what to do to make the wrong right.

That’s different than the way I train and use a NRM. We train reward marker signals (RMS) first of course, but animals need to know what the good choices are. Training RMS gives the dog lots of rewarding experiences in the choices you want him or her to make.   Later, when he knows at least one successful behavioral strategy or route to reinforcement, a NRM is paired with those moments when he’s not on the route, or when he is working and made a choice that is not leading to the reinforcement prize. My signal is “Oopsie!” With my dogs, a NRM is information that helps them, realize, “oh not this! It must be that!” and find the prize. It contains information my dogs want to know!  If you were accidentally headed the wrong way down a one-way street, and I hollered, “You’re going the wrong way!” You’d appreciate the information.  And you’d have a good idea about what you need to do to get back on the path. If you were looking for your wallet and I said, “It’s not on this table,” you would appreciate the information. That’s how we train and use the NRM at Whole Dog Camp, in games that could help your dog actually find that wallet.

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Papa passes on pancake making wisdom to the next generation. Tigerlily supervises.

 

Featured

Reinforcement versus Punishment, and why they are both a bit tricky

IMG_0216In behavior science terminology, Reinforcement (R) and Punishment(P) are functions or “consequences” that either strengthen(R) or weaken(P) behavior.

You won’t see reputable zoos or marine mammal trainers trying to show their animals “who’s boss,” not only because it’s a dumb idea to try to boss around a dolphin, but because punishment stimulates anxiety and unpredictable escape/avoidance behaviors. These difficult to control, potentially aggressive, destructive, and unhealthy behaviors can emerge (and continue) well after punishment has ended.

Many dog trainers now call themselves “force-free” or “all positive.” Although I too recognize what marine mammal trainers and zoo-keepers and other behavior scientists have learned about the dangers of punishment, I don’t call myself an “all positive” trainer because I know that even a leash is not all positive from the point of view of many dogs. Any dog might understandably rather avoid a veterinarian visit, a toe nail clipping, or even ending a fun game. We can and should remove aversive things such as shock, choke, prongs from pet training programs, but the function of punishment is not so easily eliminated. Eliminating punishment, sounds like a good idea, but it’s like eliminating gravity. In spite of our best efforts, punishment happens. Our job is to recognize what punishment is and where it is happening, and do what we can to prevent it from weakening the animal behaviors we want to cultivate.

Accidental reinforcement is not quite as harmful as accidental punishment. Kindness, compassion, generosity, love does not ruin animals or make us mentally or emotionally ill, as excessive punishment does. Sure excess hotdogs are fattening, but they don’t really “spoil” a dog. What “spoils” behaviors is associating desired things with undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing (strengthening) behaviors you don’t like.

Training is about associating the desired behaviors with desirable consequences, and undesirable behaviors with undesirable consequences. With humans, we can just explain (“after you do your homework, we’ll watch a movie”). But animals learn by experience, so training requires perfect timing for animals to clearly associate behavior and consequence. Delivering hotdogs right after the dog begs at the table? Toenail clipping right after the dog comes when called? That is a confusing.

The environment delivers rewards as well as punishments arbitrarily, sometimes reinforcing bad behavior (I found a cookie!) as well as punishing good behavior (puppy sits and someone steps on her tail). Hate it when that happens! This is why trainers place so much attention on setting the animal up for success with a carefully controlled environment. But even when you are working in a carefully planned low distraction environment, and you’ve set up your dog for success, mistakes happen. One common mistake is misuse of cues.

Ask yourself this: do cues function as rewards? Or punishment? Neither? Both?

Maybe this can gets to the crux of many training problems. To the degree that any or all cues (down/stay/sit/come etc) are disappointing/oppressing or bothering your dog (or kid!), expect those cues to fail. The function of punishment is to weaken or stop behavior and it does so because animals work to escape or avoid punishment. If your “sit!” or “down!” or “off!” cue is often functioning as punishment, your dog will be working to avoid it.

But, you’re a great trainer, and your cues are welcome opportunities, fun paying jobs that your dog loves! Your cues are music to your dog’s ears, like the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck! Like Pavlov’s dog, you cue “come!” and your dog salivates!

That’s great! But if you want that conditioned response to strengthen desirable behavior, it needs to be delivered during or just after the dog is performing a behavior you like. Conditioned reinforcement strengthens the behavior it follows. So if your dog is chasing a cat and you are yelling “come!” it might actually (oopsie!) strengthen the chase response. Or, if you say “sit” or “heel” and your dog doesn’t immediately sit or heel, and you say it again, and again, you’re strengthening the dog’s poor response. Much like feeding hotdogs when dogs beg at the table, some pet owners ignore their dog’s good behaviors, and feed them cues only when they are misbehaving!

So what does this mean in real life terms? Partly it means, don’t let your dog chase the cat. Set your dog up for success and prevent rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. You know where you and your dog are and what you are doing when your dog screws up. Don’t do that! If a plan (or no plan) is not working, change it. Make a plan to set your dog up for success and to practice and reward the behaviors you’d rather see happen. When accidents happen, as they surely do, just go get your dog and leash or crate or move her away, don’t stand there delivering conditioned reinforcement (cues) when you know she is not responding.

IMG_5500When my dog breaks a sit or a down, I avoid a re-cue. Instead I can deliver a “release signal” (“okay! all done!”) which leaves her wanting more. WHAT?! The game is over? Let me try again!

Don’t set the game up to fail. That is, don’t expect to condition your dog’s response to new cues in a highly distracting environment. Condition the response you want in a low distraction environment, and then build on that by practicing in many different environments, increasing the distractions and difficulty slowly. I also train conditioned “encouragement/discouragement” signals (“yay” versus “oopsie!”) and use them to help dogs think through and solve a puzzle. Like the game “colder colder/hotter hotter,” conditioned encouragement and discouragement (“oopsie” and “yay!”) can help dogs develop confidence in solving behavior problems and finding prizes, reinforcing behaviors that I like.

“Things” can function as both reinforcement or as punishment, depending on when and how you use them, and how you build your associations. Hotdogs are not always reinforcement. Lures, for example, often appear to function as punishment when trainers withhold food too long under the dog’s nose, and the dog gets frustrated, confused and gives up. The dog might be wondering, “Can I have that hotdog or can’t I? Am I supposed to follow the food in your hand, or will I get in trouble for doing that?”

Animals work to get information, and they work to avoid confusion. Animals aren’t born with any understanding of human language. Their response to cues is a conditioned response that develops through real-life learning experiences and associations, and not because you’ve shown the dog who is boss.

That’s enough for today! I enjoy comments or questions, and specific examples if you have them, below!

Am I your teacher?

It does no good if you can’t or won’t do the things a leader suggests to you.

You won’t learn if your focus is on the dog, and changing his or her behavior. To be a successful animal trainer, the focus has to be on changing our own behavior, because that’s how we can best shape the behaviors in our environment(s).

So, if you know right from the start that you don’t want to crate train, or if you are sure that the problem is something wrong with your dog that has nothing to do with you, then maybe I’m not your teacher! If you think that animal training is a sort of magic that is completely different from the ways we educate and socialize our human children, then maybe I’m not your teacher.

Animal training, in my experience, is about building a relationship based on trust with the animal. It’s about learning where reinforcers and punishers exist in the environment, and learning how to control consequences to help our animals adapt to our environments and understand our rules and games. It takes time. And just like humans, animals can unlearn things as fast as we learn them. Animal training requires a consciousness of YOUR responsibility for the state of your dog’s behaviors.

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Mo at 10.5 weeks

We control our dog’s environment in order to control available reinforcers. For many dogs, but not for tiny ones, a head halter gives you great control over a dog’s environment. Crates, gates, mats, doorways, fenced in yards, rooms in the house, hallway, in and out of the car: each one of these environments can be very carefully controlled to help condition a dog’s responses to distractions and exciting transitions.

But if we can’t control our own behavior, our dog’s behaviors won’t change.

So, that’s the challenge in animal training: we have to be fine with the idea that behavior modification is about us, too. I make mistakes every day, and everyone does! I open the door and the dog goes out. “Oops.” It really doesn’t destroy my training plan, it’s just our quirky imperfect style. Perfection isn’t perfect! If you don’t value mistakes as a natural part of the learning process — and powerful opportunities for growth – then maybe I’m not your teacher.

But if you want to create a plan to feel better and have more fun with your dog; if you aren’t afraid to use real “choice” (rather than force) to motivate your dog; if you expect dog training to be a lifelong activity that you do with your dog, and not just a temporary thing that you can do and it’s “done,” then  I would love to share what I know with you!

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