February 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

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Reward-Based, Positive Reinforcement, and Clicker-Training

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment


Clicker-trained dogs like Iggy tend to be very attentive.


History and Theory: Lures, Rewards, Whistles, Clickers

Contemporary, reward-based animal training has its roots in marine-mammal training. During the mid-twentieth century, people began trying to train captive dolphins and orcas using negative reinforcement, or coercion methods, just as people had been training dogs and horses. The trainers prodded and poked the cetaceans; all of the animals reacted in one of two ways: they would either take a big breath and sink to the bottom of the pool in the center and stay there until they couldn’t hold their breath any longer, or they would swim to the far side of the pool and keep the entire pool between them and the trainer. In no instance did any of the animals actually even attempt to do a behavior in response to being pushed or prodded.

This complete lack of success using coercion methods, combined with the simple practical problem of trying to figure out how to force an orca, or even a dolphin, to jump in the air, or how to punish them for not doing something (imagine hitting a 2,000 pound carnivore with a rolled up newspaper) caused the trainers and biologists to rethink their methods and start from a different place altogether. It took a lot of experimentation, but what they ended up doing worked so well their methods allowed the trainers to teach the animals to do things they hadn’t even considered possible. Most of us have seen, at least on television, coordinated acrobatic displays of dolphins and orcas leaping, flipping, towing humans, even swimming backwards while most of their bodies are out of the water.


The trainers taught the animals to do these things by using positive reinforcement and by shaping the performers’ behavior using markers. With marine mammals, the best marker was found to be a whistle, and this is the precursor to the clicker and clicker-training used with dogs, cats, horses and even chickens today. The first step was to cause the cetaceans to identify the whistle as a reward in itself. Like Pavlov with his bells and metronomes, the trainers blew the whistle each time the animals got a fish. Very quickly, the animals associated the whistle with something positive: being fed a fish. This allowed the trainers to use the whistle as an immediate reward (it is difficult or impossible to get a fish into the mouth of a dolphin at exactly the moment it performs a requested action; relatively simple to blow the whistle at just the right moment). The animals quickly learned the sound of the whistle meant fish was coming, just not at that moment, and so the whistle became its own reward, and a marker.


To teach a dolphin a simple (for a dolphin) trick like jumping out of the water, the trainers waited until the dolphin did it on its own, then marked that behavior with the whistle and rewarded it with a fish. To teach the dolphin to do a flip, they would lure it by using a fish on a pole. Eventually, the dolphin would do the flip as it followed the fish in the air. When it did, the trainers would mark that with the whistle and reward it with a fish. Very quickly, the tricks got more complicated, and possibly the most amazing part was that other untrained dolphins would mimic the trained ones, hoping for their own whistles and fish.


Karen Pryor


In 1963, a biologist named Karen Pryor signed on as a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. She was an expert dog and horse trainer, who had great success using traditional methods with those animals, but who had to relearn everything when working with cetaceans. When she left Sea Life Park several years later, Pryor tried using the same general principles she had learned in working with sea mammals on her dogs and horses. The effects were immediately obvious, and quite astounding. In one year she trained an adult dog for obedience competition. Conventional wisdom up to that time said that serious obedience competitors needed at least two years, and that starting with an adult dog, instead of an adolescent, was all but a waste of a time. She entered her dog and won, and did it without using any “corrective” techniques or equipment at all: no choke chain, no hitting, not even the use of “No!” To help prove this was not, as many other trainers claimed, a fluke, she taught her methods to another trainer, who used an adult dog with little or no obedience training. This time, it took only six months, and the new trainer and dog won the same competitions Karen Pryor had won the previous year. People began to notice, and asked for more information.


Pryor did more experimentation and research, and trained horses, dogs, chickens (turns out chickens are pretty smart, given the chance to learn things) and even people using what she calls “positive reinforcement shaping and training”. She has published many papers and articles, but is best known for her bestselling book, Don’t Shoot the Dog, which lays out the history, principles, and benefits to reward-based, positive-reinforcement training. As with most technological breakthroughs, many people were working on similar theories and ideas at the same time (who really invented the radio, the computer mouse-interface, or the automobile?). It took a while for these general ideas to become mainstream, but now these methods are the norm, while just 20 years ago most dog-training methods involved force and coercion instead of rewards and reinforcement. Don’t Shoot the Dog seems to be the most dramatic and important (but far from the only) catalyst for the movement.


Actual Method: Priming


To learn clicker training, I recommend working with a professional trainer, or getting a book on the specific topic. The new, revised edition of Don’t Shoot the Dog has a chapter on clicker training, and there are whole books on the subject available at many large booksellers and pet-supply stores. Click for Joy, listed in this site’s blibiography is also a great resource. I will explain how I do it, and I have had some success with it. 


The first step is to get the dog (or cat, chicken, what have you) primed for the clicker. This is fun; we get to play Pavlov. It is as simple as putting together a bag of treats and getting a clicker, then feeding the animal the treats, and clicking each time. Timing is important! The click should happen just as the dog puts her mouth on the treat. Wait a few seconds, until the dog has completely finished the treat and put her attention back to you, and then do it again. Ten or so times per session is about right, and do it a few times a day, several days in a row. At the end of a session, pocket the clicker and show your empty hands, saying “That is all!” or “All done!” or something to let your pet know the session is over.


It is not essential, but it is helpful to have different kinds of treats for this, and for training in the future as well. I use a combination of small (puppy size) dog biscuits in various flavors, cut up pieces of dog loaf (like Natural Balance Dog Food Roll), and freeze dried liver, heart, and lung. You only need very small pieces for this to be an effective reward. The reason it is better to have different foods in your treat bag is based on a principle which has been shown to apply to most animals and especially people. No matter how much the dog likes their favorite thing, he will get tired of it. And no matter how much they like consistency, randomization is almost always preferred. Apply this randomization to later training, too — it is always best, when convenient. Think about it in terms of a slot machine that always pays something. People blow their life savings on slot machines for a reason — the hoping-for something-great causes us to pull that arm, and deposit our money, again and again. Same with animals! Randomizing their reward causes them to be more interested.


Actual Method: Shaping


Once the dog recognizes the click as something good, it can be used as a marker for a behavior we like. And the best part is it can be used as a marker for getting close, thus teaching the dog that it is getting the right idea. The first thing I taught my dog, Iggy, to do using a clicker was to catch popcorn in his mouth. First I made a plan. Making a plan is important because it helps avoid confusing the dog. How can we avoid confusing our pets if we are confused ourselves? My goal was for my dog to catch popcorn in his mouth when I threw it to him. My plan was to shape his behavior by rewarding him, at first, for anything that was even vaguely moving in the right direction. I decided this meant at first I would click for him if the popcorn even hit his muzzle (but not any other part of his head). After a few sessions of this, I planned to click only if he attempted to catch it, even if he didn’t succeed. After a few sessions of that, he would only get a click if he actually made the catch. Also important, is that I would not throw the popcorn unless he was in front of me and attentive (looking at me). I decided I would not require him to be sitting, but requiring him to be sitting would have been a reasonable choice.


Timing is very important, and I found it challenging to get this right. The click should come at the instant that the behavior happens, so this meant clicking right as the popcorn hit his muzzle, then right as he lunged for it, then right as he caught it. It was harder than it sounds, but I kept trying and Iggy learned this trick in about three days. It is important to limit sessions — how long is appropriate varies with the animal, but 20 minutes would be the maximum for an adult dog who is fairly patient and already somewhat trained. For a cat, I would keep it to 5 at first, and for a puppy I would try 10. Better to end early, than late! It is also always best to end upbeat. I always make the last thing we do in a training session something that Iggy has down cold, like “Sit.” We also begin with things he already knows, to get warmed up. The whole session should be fun; if you get frustrated or pissed, end the session and start again later. All training should be fun!!! 


The popcorn trick is a fun one for the dog, because there are a lot of rewards happening, and no downside. If the dog misses the popcorn altogether, he still gets to eat it off the floor. If the dog gets a click because it hit his muzzle, but then eats it off the floor, well great! He is happy — he still gets the popcorn, and he earned a click! With practice, Iggy began to get the secondary part of the reinforcement, though: catching popcorn means the next piece comes faster. He doesn’t have to spend time rooting around on the floor looking for it, or resetting himself for my next throw. As he got better at it, I would only click if he actually caught it — close didn’t count anymore. This is because he now knew the goal, and just needed practice to get good at it. The popcorn is plenty reward!


Clicking is Temporary!


The clicker is a tool used to teach. It works the same way to simply say “Yes!” or “Good!” at exactly the right moment as it does to click. The reason the clicker is so great is that it is completely consistent, and sounds the same whether or not the trainer is having a bad day, is hoarse from a cold, is depressed, moody, or even if it is a different person training the dog (like a different spouse or sibling). The clicker is also a great tool because the sound is unique, and is not likely to be encountered in the household or out in the world, whereas a dog is bound to hear lots of “Yes!” and “Good!” in its normal course of life. I have taught Iggy lots of things using the clicker, but rarely take one on walks or to the park. He knows how to come to the front, heel, spin etc., and while he learned those things with the clicker, once he knows them, he doesn’t need the clicker anymore! His rewards for these things are either treats (I usually carry a treat bag), affection (he loves to have his chest rubbed), or even verbal praise (Good, good dog! Yes!).  

Unsolicited Solicitation

February 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Google AdSense or recurring sponsorship? Hoping for the latter model.

Poll: Do dogs feel love?

January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

When Rene Descarte posited “I think, therefore I am.” the necessary secondary conclusion is that those unable to form that simple declaration of self-awareness are, well, not. Were they able to perform the linguistic gymnastics (and thereby proving they “are”), one presumes they would posit “I cannot express my thought, therefore I am not.” Less well known is Gertrude Stein’s declaration of existence, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” Her proof of life is just as conclusive, except that it relies on the ability of her pet to recognize its person. In Descarte’s view, dogs cannot feel love, or any other actual emotion, because they are unable to voice their own self-awareness. In Stein’s view, her own self-awarewness is defined by her dog’s ability to love her. What is your view?

My Bullmastiff Pooped in My Bed

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Iggy enjoys his rest.

It is tempting to pretend nothing unexpected or unfortunate ever occurs with my dogs. I proclaim now, with no little modesty or humility, this is not the actual fact: if I have any expertise, or at least some small familiarity, with the care, feeding, and training of dogs, it has led me to understand unexpected (even disastrous) events do occur, and the proficiency of the caregiver should be measured not in our imaginary ability to avoid them altogether, but by how we address these events when they inevitably occur.

Taking satisfaction in the misfortune of others is a shameful, if ubiquitous, vice. I am chagrined to admit I find a regrettable relief in the discovery of dog professionals whose canine companions do not behave perfectly. I have no less positive an opinion of the people involved – I just feel less embarrassed by my own pets’ shortcomings. I used to cringe when my bullmastiff Iggy behaved poorly in public, but now I laugh, and use it as an illustration of behavior issues we need to modify. I invite you, dear readers, to revel in my tale of embarrassment, and use it as an antidote to whatever face-palming disaster befalls you thanks to your misbehaving dog.

Iggy was four years old when I adopted him, and had lived with two different families. Immediately before I took him home, he spent ten days at the Everett Animal Shelter, and then a day at the Northwest Organization for Animal Help. It was not surprising that Iggy came with a full complement of special personality traits, and the ones that did not involve the risk of injury or lawsuits I endured with joviality bordering on broadminded parental charity. I set very high standards for Iggy’s behavior and training, but I let his personality be. I let Iggy be Iggy.

Iggy doesn’t poop in his own yard. He has lived with us two years, now, and has pooped in our yard only twice, both times when he was sick. He poops twice a day, under normal circumstances, once in the morning and once at night, at least a few blocks from his own house. Iggy was not so regular when we first brought him home. Skinny, stressed out, and finicky, he didn’t eat enough, and didn’t like to eat at regular times. I fed him high quality food, made a game out of meal times, and put him on a strict schedule. I also added a tablespoon of pumpkin to each of his meals, which helps him poop at regular times (and also causes his farts to smell a little like Thanksgiving, albeit a disgusting dog poop-tinged version of Thanksgiving).

Iggy has powerful dreams. He yaps in his sleep, and sometimes his legs move like he is running. On occasion he growls or makes sounds like a child crying. My vet was concerned he might be having seizures, but after seeing him do it (Iggy sleeps at the vet’s office when giving blood), the vet agreed it is just dreams, albeit very active ones. Sometimes when the dreams are really extreme, I wake him, but usually I let him dream, reasoning that he has things to work out in his subconscious.

It had been raining for days, and I had been working long hours. It seemed like every night when I got home to walk Iggy it was pouring rain, and Iggy despises the rain only slightly less than he despises pooping in his own yard. I am the Human, and I am in charge, of course, so I walk him anyway, whether he likes it or not. But Iggy doesn’t poop in the rain. That is another one of his things. It rains here all the time, and Iggy does this pretty often. He has a good poop in the morning, then refuses to poop in the rain on our walk, then refuses to poop in his own yard, and so he holds it all night until morning when he we walk again. Bullmastiffs are usually counted among the giant-sized breeds, and their bodily functions are correspondingly giant-sized. Iggy gets very high quality food, which is relatively low volume, but he is a huge dog, and with the added bulk of the pumpkin, and waiting all night after skipping his evening poop, his morning absolution can be so big it requires two bags to collect completely.

One evening, after a walk in the rain during which Iggy did not bless the world with a night-soil deposit, I was working at my desk in the bedroom. Iggy came in to check on me. He sat, shook my hand with his paw and accepted a scratch behind his ears. Then, at my invitation, he hopped onto the bed to wait until I was done doing my work. He quickly fell asleep, which I could tell by his enthusiastic snoring. After a few minutes, he began dreaming. First came the yipping, then his legs moved a bit, and then some light growling. I smiled to myself and continued my work. After a few minutes, I heard him stir; when I looked over at him, he was looking back at me with an expression that suggested confusion mixed with embarrassment. He got up, shook himself, and jumped off the bed. Then I smelled it: dog poop mixed with Thanksgiving, and not in the normal, nearly lethal dose of flatulence that was his wont. Iggy had pooped in my bed while sound asleep. I didn’t yell, didn’t curse, just looked at the steaming train of slightly pumpkin-colored poop (as he had been lying on his side, it was not piled up like the normal result of a crouching dog – this was more like a poop snake) and asked him, “What the hell?”

Iggy did his best impression of the Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman, offering up a doggy version of a shrug that seemed to say, “What? Me Worry?” and then left the room, his embarrassment passed in classic canine-timeline fashion. After cleaning up and changing the sheets, I went and found the Iggster sleeping noisily in the living room, not at all impacted by the odd occurrence of a few minutes past. The next day we visited the veterinarian, just to confirm what I already knew: The Poop Incident of 2010 was not an indicator of any physical health issue.

Poop happens, and I take some small satisfaction that Iggy’s only accident with us occurred while he was asleep, and not responsible for his actions. This was not some kind of active rebellion, just a sub-conscious reaction to… what? I do not know. I still try to get him to poop in the rain, and still try to get him to get him to poop in his own yard, and am still flummoxed by his intestinal and attitudinal fortitude. Iggy is Iggy, and I love him when he is perfect, so I love him when he poops in my bed.

Sidecar Sidekick

January 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

Strummer in a Mexican pool.

Chris Larson has been my friend for over twenty years, and while I do not see him often, it is always interesting to hear what he is doing. Chris has a special excitement about life. In preparing this article, and reflecting on my friendship with Chris, I realized that I have never known him to be in a bad mood. This is one of the many qualities that make him such a special dog person. Chris grew up on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and still lives there today. When Chris is not hanging out with his dog, Strummer, or girlfriend, Stephanie, he coaches high school soccer, and is the owner of Chris Larson Construction.

Tell us about your dog. Strummer is a 4.75 yr. old female chocolate lab. She weighs 43 lbs. (Can you say runt?) Whatever, we never wanted a show dog, just a friend! She came from a farm in Enumclaw, WA. We specifically looked at litters with small parents, with the idea that we’d get a small dog!

What is the source of her name? She is named after Joe Strummer, from The Clash. Love of The Clash has been a theme in my relationship with Stephanie, my girlfriend of almost 10 yrs.

Out for a ride on a hot day.

Tell us about your ride; it is very unusual. It’s a 1970 Chang Jiang 750. They were produced by the Chinese military until the late ’90’s. Originally designed by BMW in 1938, then the factory tooling was stolen by the Russians during WWII. The Russians gave the design and factory parts to the Chinese. It was used extensively by the People’s Liberation Army.

How did you train Strummer to ride with you? I started training her for the sidecar about a month before I picked it up. I started by putting my ski goggles on her and not allowing her to take them off. When I got the bike home I brought her out to the garage while I worked on it. When she was comfortable with the sound of the motor and vibration I turned the bike off and put her in the sidecar. I continued to work on the bike with the engine off making sure to jostle the rig as much as possible. Once I felt she was ready I fired the motor and she jumped out. I lead her back into the sidecar and continued doing other things and left the motor running. I then revved the motor and she jumped out again. I led her back into the sidecar and held her collar while I made her watch me operate the throttle then she figured it was me causing all the racket and chilled out.

Strummer in full regalia.

Do you use any special equipment to keep her safe? We bought a harness, and I made a 3 point restraint system for the sidecar. She can’t be bounced out of the chair! After all that I had a motorcycle jacket elbow pad sewn into a child size aviator hat, and the rest is history. She never fusses with the safety gear. There are inherent dangers with motorcycling, so I never allowed it to become an excitement or game.

Where all have you travelled with Strummer? Our longest motorcycle trip was an overnight camping trip to Orcas Island, We took her to Vashon Island, but mostly it is just around town or day trip/picnics with Mama Stephanie. We have taken her to Mexico twice and Whbistler, but not on the bike. Commuting to the job sites with her on the bike is a blast!

Atop Mt. Consitution on Orcas Island.

Can you tell if she likes riding in the sidecar? She’s pretty used to it, and sometimes just goes to sleep! She’s had her picture taken so many times she just ignores it now. It doesn’t matter what we do, as long as are all together, Strummer is having a blast! She stays in the sidecar when we go in restaurants and stores and such. I unhook her and take off her gear a she just chills. I’ll also toss my coat down for her outside just about anywhere and she’ll use it as a bed.

The family that plays together...

Does Strummer have other training? As far as training is concerned, she does all the command stuff and is rarely on a leash. I have Steph to thank for that; she’s a natural dog trainer. The only actual trick Strummer does is high five.

Chris, Stephanie, and Strummer in Mexico.

What other activities do you enjoy with Strummer? We run (w/ Mama almost every day, and me less so), hike, fetch (she can’t get enough of the tennis ball. She has them stashed all over Capitol Hill), swim (webbed toes you know), swim and fetch together… and she loves traveling to Whistler and Mexico with us. I can’t imagine my life without my girls: Stephanie, Strummer and Chloe (the cat). I am richer because of them!

A happy trio.

The Family That Plays Together…

January 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

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