Sunday, July 18, 2010

Give Yourself a Happy Face

There's been a lot of talk around here about behavior and handling, a subject I'm very passionate about. I picked up a fully engrossing book about clicker training called Reaching the Animal Mind. Author Karen Pryor shares her experiences working with animals using non-aversive training. I'm about halfway through the book. There hasn't been too much mention of using positive reinforcement with humans, other than kids teaching ponies to surf. Yes, you read that right! It got me wondering if +R could really be effective on humans, and then it hit me: I was the recipient of +R training, and at a very young age!

1991 meant entering the first grade. Mrs. Thompson had the foresight to understand the importance of proper spelling; teaching us to get high marks on our papers was her passion, and she knew just how to do it. The first few weeks were very easy words. She read down the vocabulary list, and we wrote what we heard. We checked our papers all together, one word at a time. "If you got that one right, give yourself a happy face!" Wow! What kid doesn't like happy faces, especially in exchange for a good job? "If you didn't get it, don't do anything." Oh no, not nothing, anything but that! Six-year-old kids just crave attention! I remember the elation and frustration of my classmates, as well as my own, depending on how we answered. Everyone really wanted those happy faces! We turned our papers in, and she gave us a grade.

Here's how it worked: the happy face was the marker, similar to the clicker, to let us know we did the right thing. The grade was the reinforcer, the payoff, the result of getting happy faces. With everyone wanting the happy faces so badly, the grades stayed high.

After a few weeks, Mrs. Thompson collected our papers immediately after we were done. They got graded and handed back. No more happy faces? That's just fine. Mrs. Thompson phased out the markers and went straight to the reinforcer. After we fully associated the marker with the reinforcer, the happy faces were no longer needed; we understood the importance of the grade, and our test scores remained high. How do I know this? She posted them on the halls for everyone to see. Parents and other teachers were impressed. This is what a true trainer of +R does: the markers don't become a permanence, and eventually the reinforcer is phased out as well. This is when real learning takes place.

So then, the skeptics will ask, why isn't everyone still a perfect speller? The answer is simple: the reinforcer, the grade, suddenly became the fastest route to unpopularity. Learning wasn't the "cool" thing to do from a social standpoint, so kids misspelled words frequently, and on purpose. It still continues today: just look up any teenager's Myspace page! If you're an English major like me, you might just feel disgusted. However, sharing a laid-back attitude towards proper spelling--peer pressure--is now the reinforcer. Since I didn't give a lick about popularity, my spelling remained excellent. Thanks Mrs. Thompson, wherever you are!

The above is an example of just how complex behavior patterns can be, yet how easy it can be to create and change them. Animals are nowhere near as complex as we are, so most anyone can get a handle on what +R is all about. Give it a try! Teach your dog how to dance, show your cat how to wave hello, have your gerbil press a lever... and if you do it successfully, give yourself a happy face :)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Doggie Daze Are Here Again!

Every year at the shelter, we host an event known as Doggie Daze. It's a time for reunions and fun for humans and canines alike. We usually see a good amount of our former shelter dogs come back for a visit, and get to meet some new faces too! The event grows every year, and 2010 proved to be no exception!

New to Doggie Daze this year was a bounce-house; a dollar got you fifteen minutes of airtime. Also, we collaborated with other rescues to bring even more awareness to homeless animals. Not only did we get several dog rescues to set up tents, but a farm animal sanctuary also showed up with chickens. There was even a llama from a local llama farm!

Vendors lined the hall with various doggie products. One could find everything from treats to training to boarding services. A Chinese auction took center stage with some wonderful gift baskets up for grabs. One table in front of that hosted some demonstrations, including mine - all about grooming, of course! Last year, only a few people came to see me talk about grooming tools. I was excited to see a small crowd come into the hall! Granted, they came and went, but I had some time for questions afterward. Even if I only reach a few people, that's a few more people than not!

The big excitement came in the morning, when I rocked my Rainbow Brite Cocker Spaniel suit from last year's Groom Expo. Seemed like everyone was drawn to me, the giant dog, and couldn't wait to make a donation! Those who had only a few large bills came back to drop a few bucks in my donation jar. Only one dog was truly afraid of me, but only because she was waking up from a nap and not really sure of what was going on. Imagine waking up to a strange ten-foot person - yikes! And yes, only one Labra-doodle tried to sniff my butt, haha!

After walking around for two hours, I raised $74 for our animals! Not too bad, especially considering the bounce house pulled in just $44! The humans was entertained, I had fun, the animals got a little extra money towards their well-being... everyone won today! Seeing as how I practically got my start from bathing the big hairies, as well as adopted my Xavier there almost two years ago, I'm honored to give a little something more to our organization. The fur will continue to fly in the grooming room as long as I'm in town - I love my shelter!

Alyssa (the dog director) and I outside the hall

Rock on!!

For more information about our shelter, visit our website at