A Culture of Learning

Stella. Courtesy Robyn Arouty Photography

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Folks ask all the time, “How often should I train my dog?”  I’d like to be able to say every day, all day; your dog is always learning.  But people want structure so instead I recommend short sessions (clicker training) several times a day totaling 30 to 40 minutes a day.  They are both the right answer.  Still, I like the first one better.

Weave training into your everyday life.  Make your relationship with your dog a culture of learning.  That’s the best way.  Now, I’m not really talking about making your dog wait for you to pass through a doorway first.  It’s not about requiring him to sit and stay before you put his food bowl down.  It’s not even about demanding he sit nicely instead of jumping on your guests.  Don’t get me wrong.  Those are all very nice manners to teach your dog.  But, I’m talking about a different culture of learning, one that has nothing to do with making, requiring or demanding.

It’s about noticing.  Here’s a little bit of dog-trainer-geek science.  A behavior with a favorable outcome (for the dog) is more likely to be repeated.  It’s called Thorndike’s Law of Effect.  Scientists don’t hand out that word lightly: Law.  Thorndike’s law of effect is just that, a law.  It’s been proven, tested and re-tested.  That gives you a lot of power when it comes to training.  There are lots of favorable outcomes you control: food, playtime, petting, warm smiles and praise.  That means you can get a lot of good behavior on the “repeat cycle” of your dog’s repertoire just by leveraging those favorable outcomes.  It’s how clicker training works.  Your dog does something cool.  You click and treat.  The dog does that cool thing more.

Okay, what does that have to do with noticing, specifically noticing your dog?  Life doesn’t happen in 10 minute clicker training sessions.  But our dogs are always learning from us and from the environment.  Thorndike’s law of effect is always at play.  That means it’s up to us to always be aware of what our dogs are doing, watching for good behavior that we can reinforce (favorable outcome), noticing.  That’s the culture of learning I’m talking about.  Notice when your dog does something right and be ready to let him know that’s what you like.  Now you’re teaching your dog every day, all day.

This may seem difficult, but read on.  We humans seem to be pre-programmed to notice when things go wrong not when things go right.  While I was writing this my dog, Stella, came over to check in with me.  I love that behavior but I ignored it.  Later she started barking out the window and she earned my full attention.  That’s the way people are, but it’s backwards training.  Stella learned that checking in with me got her nothing (no favorable outcome) but barking got my attention (favorable outcome).  I ended up on the wrong side of the law, Thorndike’s Law.

Notice.  Your dog does great things every day.  Never miss a chance to pet him when he sits nicely and gazes at your adoringly.  Smile and rub his belly when he curls up at your feet.  Throw a party when he comes when called.  Then throw the ball and play for a little while.  It’s worth it.  And it’s a good way to live.  Notice what’s right with your dog and be glad.  Then notice the people in your life – even the ones you don’t know – and the world around you.

There’s a lot of good going on.  Click and treat.

Learning is a Click Away

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

It’s not rocket science but, sure enough, it’s science.  That may be the coolest thing about clicker training.   There’s hard core science behind it.  Okay maybe that’s the second coolest thing.  Number one is how well it works.

So dial back to B.F. Skinner.  He’s the first one who toyed with the idea of using secondary reinforcement to help animals (people too) learn.  What’s that?  Good question.  But let’s look at first things first: primary reinforcement – the stuff that builds behavior.  Usually primary reinforcement is something with a bit of biological drive behind it (think food, sex and survival).  Learn to hunt; earn food.  Get the courtship right; get the girl.  Outsmart the tiger; live another day.  Those are all important behaviors with strong primary reinforcement keeping them going.  So, what about our dogs?  Sit nicely; get your dinner.  Learn a new trick; get some treats.  Get it?

Now let’s turn to the secondary reinforcement.  That’s anything that signals to the animal (or person) that the primary reinforcement is on the way.  Sea mammal trainers use a high pitched whistle.  Dolphin jumps the hoop; trainer blows the whistle; come get your fish.  Game shows have their own version.  Contestant answers the question; a bell or a siren sounds; and here’s the announcer with your prize package.  Dog trainers use a clicker.  Rover rolls over; trainer clicks as soon as it happens; Rover gets his bit of food.  It’s called a secondary reinforcement because it isn’t the real deal (the primary).  It signals or predicts the good stuff is on the way.

Why a clicker?  There’s some evidence Skinner thought about using a cricket toy which is very similar to a modern clicker.  But it wasn’t until much later that his students Marian and Keller Breland experimented clickers.  Karen Pryor made them the industry standard in modern dog training.

Maybe the real question is: why click?  The answer is super simple.

( Read More )

Psyching Out Your Dog

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Something funny happens when your dog starts to get good at learning.  She can tell when you are in training mode and when you are not.  Basically she knows when the reinforcement is available compared to when you simply aren’t paying.  How?  Well, you have that treat bag on your hip.  There’s that clicker in your hand.  And you’re standing sort of at attention leaning over your dog saying all those “commands.”  You are so obvious (yeah, I am too).

Stella. Courtesy Brett Chisholm Photography

Maybe your dog loves to work when the treat bar is open.  But the rest of the time it’s “no deal.”  How do you get your dog to respond in real life, all the time, anywhere?  My answer: psych her out.

That bag on your hip, the clicker in your hand and the way you stand and talk are all part of what behavior scientists call your “stimulus package.”  You don’t have to remember the name.  Just remember that it alerts your dog that it’s time to act nice; it predicts  goodies are coming.  In order to psych our dogs out, all we have to do is make that set up a bit less obvious and a whole lot more unpredictable.  Anything can predict goodies.

Try this.  Hide some treats in a candy jar in the living room.  Later ask your dog to do her best trick or maybe just a simple “sit” or “down.”  When she does it – BAM give her one of those secret treats.  Wow, she thinks, I didn’t see that coming.

Slip some morsels of goodness in your pocket one day when your dog isn’t looking.  Put the clicker in your other pocket.  Call your dog to you and surprise her with a click and treat when she gets there.  Whoa, that never happened before.

How about some surprise training on a walk. This is new.  Going to the vet?  Train there.  Cool, you do this everywhere.  Why not train in your p.j.’s?  Hey, those are cute.

This is all about teaching your dog that she should be ready all the time and anywhere.  Training (and the possibility for reinforcement) doesn’t just happen when you wear a certain outfit in a certain place at certain times.  Training can happen wherever you are, often when your dog least expects it.

The result is a dog who is joyfully alert whenever you are around.  This could be another opportunity.  She watches and listens.  What’s he want me to do?  And when you say the word she acts quickly.  Yes, she thinks, I love this game.