Sunday, September 25, 2011

Olympic level dog training seminar

The nice thing about having weekends free on your ambulatory rotation is that you can do the things normal people do with their weekends, like go to incredibly geeky dog training seminars about the details of learning theory. I went to a seminar on improving the cues you give your dog with the brilliant Kathy Sdao. Some of her main points, below.

  • A command is something you give with the expectation of making the animal obey. A cue is something you give to say “you know that behavior that you have learned is a really good thing to do, because you often get paid to do it? Now would be a great time to do it!”
  • Oh, for those of you who aren’t dog training geeks, I should back up. “Getting paid” is dog training lingo for the idea that dogs don’t work for us just because they love us. Do you do work because you love your boss? Dogs get paid with food, praise, life rewards (getting a ball thrown), etc.
  • You can’t control a behavior. You can only control what happens before and after a behavior, and therefore the animal’s expectation for cues that predict a good or bad time to perform the behavior, and consequences of the behavior.
  • You certainly can use cues which are difficult for your dog to distinguish, like down and out, which have the same internal vowel sounds and are very similar to the ear if you don’t have human-level language skills. However, why would you? Choose words that make things easy for your dog by being easy to distinguish from each other. Your dog is the one who is struggling to understand language, something his species does not excel at.
  • We know it, but it’s worth repeating: a dog doesn’t refuse to perform a behavior for spite. That’s only something humans do. A dog who doesn’t respond to a command or cue does so for only one of two reasons: a) he doesn’t understand what is being asked of him, or b) he doesn’t feel it is worth his while (he is not being paid sufficiently).
  • We think of cues as verbal or gestural. Of course, dogs are more comfortable with gestural cues in general. (One participant found that her dog completely ignored a verbal cue which she had always given paired with a gesture.) You don’t have to make gestures only with your hands! Some people with small dogs find that the dogs respond very well to foot gestures, which are closer to their eye level.
  • Cues that we give without meaning to include eye movements, where our attention is, body language (the classic story of the dog refusing to lie down unless the owner bends forward, because that may not be the cue the owner taught, but it is the cue the dog learned). Tone of voice. Time of day. Antecedents like picking up your keys. My dogs have learned that “okay,” spoken while I am on the computer, means I have decided to get up and get myself off the keyboard, even though it is something I say unconsciously to myself and not intentionally to them.
  • Dogs live in a sea of information coming from us. Sometimes it is hard for them to pick out the cue we want to give. You think you are just raising your hand to indicate sit, but the dog is taking in tone of voice, where you are looking, if you are bending forward, what your other hand is doing, the position of your feet. It isn’t obvious to the dog that the hand (or word) is what he is supposed to be paying attention to.
  • Kathy gave two examples to illustrate that point. The first: you know the feeling you get when you are tuning a radio and you can’t quite get the station, and have to listen to it through static? Dogs live in that world all the time.
  • For those who know the invisible gorilla illusion — if you don’t know to look for something, you may not see it. If the dog is paying attention to how far forward you are leaning, he may not even hear the word you are saying to him. After all, words come out of your mouth all the time, and he usually doesn’t understand them. Why should he pay attention to this one and assume it has some importance? Why should his brain even filter is so that he hears it at all?
We played a fun game with the participating dogs called “Prove It.” The handler asserts something like “my cue for sit is the word ‘sit.’“ The challenger says, “Yeah? What if you say it with your eyes closed? With your hand over your mouth? Looking at the ceiling? Whispering? Standing on a chair? Will your dog still do it then?” I worked with a handler whose dog did standard commands flawlessly, promptly, and enthusiastically. When her handler told her to sit while looking at the ceiling, the dog stared at her hopefully, trying to figure out what she was supposed to do. (During this game, we took lots of breaks to give the dogs easy tasks and reward them.)

Fun day learning about how to communicate with your dog, and gave me good insights into my own training methods. Kathy Sdao is an excellent teacher. If you are a beginning trainer, her classes may seem a little arcane to you, but I highly recommend her if you are a learning theory geek, or someone who teaches other people to train dogs.

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