Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bare Mechanics of Training

NOTE: I do not claim to be a professional ethologist or behaviorist by writing this blog. The following information is an accumulation of material from various authors I've studied since 2007. The list includes, but is not limited to: Dr. Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell Ph.D, Nicole Wilde, Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Victoria Stilwell, Brenda Aloff, Turid Rugaas, Paul Owens.

I've been wanting to do a blog on behavior and training for some time now. Finally I feel I have enough information and experiences to work with. However, I realize that there are plenty of different views--some of which are terribly skewed--on the different terms. So, I decided to do this little write-up and put it at every header of all future training posts. Now we can all be on the same page! I realize that this is a re-hash of everything I've studied, but it amazes me how many people get their terms mixed up. So here it is in clear and simple print.

In my experiences, there are four forces that are constantly at work when teaching and training, even if we don't realize it: positive, negative, reinforcement, and punishment. It's common to associate "positive" and "reinforcement" with only things that are good, while tying "negative" and "punishment" to only things that are bad. When dealing with training, it's best to view these items through a psychologist's eyes.

Positive (+): adding
Negative (-): removing
Reinforcement (R): something intended to increase the frequency of a behavior
Punishment(P): something intended to decrease the frequency of a behavior

Now these can be combined into four basic mechanics:

Positive reinforcement (+R): adding something intended to increase the frequency of a behavior
Example: Dog gives paw on cue. Gets a treat.
Positive punishment(+P): adding something intended to decrease the frequency of a behavior
Example: Dog barks. Gets a zap from a shock collar.
Negative reinforcement(-R): removing something in order to increase the frequency of a behavior
Example: Dog stops pulling on lead. Tightness of the collar subsides.
Negative punishment(-P): removing something in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior
Example: Dog is playing tug and his teeth catch your hand. The game is over.

Note that when I define reinforcement and punishment, I use the word intended. In order for either one to work, the "something" must be effective. Example: if you ask my dog Xavier for a series of complex behaviors and you have a big broccoli in your hand, you will get snubbed--he hates broccoli! If you have a little sliver of chicken, you've won his heart and he's ready to impress you!

More often than not, the mechanics work closely together. Someone who says that they never use punishment, in actuality, has used it in some form. If you've ever taken your dog back inside for being too noisy, that's (-P); you've removed the dog himself from something--being outside--in order to cease his carrying on. Before you go thinking that you're a horrible person for having done so, let me point out that not all punishment needs to be brutally aversive; by the same token, not all rewards need to be the equivalent of hitting the jackpot lotto. Again, it simply must be effective.

One more point I'd like to touch on for now: the mechanics need not be only physical. Not all (+P) consists of giving the dog an uncomfortable feeling, nor does (+R) have to be about stuffing the dog full of treats. Dogs are very sensitive to our vocal tones. One good displeased "Ah!" sends out a clear message: I don't like what you did there! Also, a happy "Good dog!" is an excellent example of (+R) because, let's face it, dogs aim to please.

In the coming articles I'll be talking about types of training, the power of (P), and other things - stay tuned!!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tribute to Zebee, the Toughest Maltese!

I haven't been in the business of grooming for too long, but I've already experienced client loss, something no groomer looks forward to. My first was sweet old Trevor, the donut Pomeranian. Then, one of our Yorkie clients, Miss Emma, developed cancer rapidly. Now, a third name is added to the list: Zebee, the toughest Maltese.

Last June, I stopped in Nancy's shop, hoping to learn a few pointers before heading off to school. On the table was a tiny white body, curled up comfortably on a towel. Zebee's eyes met mine and I knew that this was no average dog. Three years ago, he injured his back and became partially paralyzed. Even at the age of twelve, his eyes glowed like a puppy's. Nancy said he was on borrowed time, and wouldn't be with us much longer.

After school, when I got the job with Nancy, I was surprised to see Hunter in the shop with his brother Zebee. Although there weren't any improvements in his health, Zebee was still as spunky as ever. He sang a song in the tub and tried to stand on his own. We put him in a sling and watched in amazement as he tried to stand on all four legs, if only for a short while. Zebee's mom said that he still got around the house without assistance, which amazed us even more.

The months passed by and Zebee's frail body grew weaker. His will to live was unbroken, and you could see it in his eyes. I thought for sure that at one point, Zebee would not be back for another groom. Tuesday, he returned with his brother for the final time. He had his song in the tub and was very alert. Suddenly, he collapsed. We thought for sure he had died right there in the shop, until he showed signs of fading consciousness. Although his body gave out, Zebee's will remained. His last moments of life were spent with his mom and brother. It was decided that it was in Zebee's best interest that he be put to sleep.

None of us knew for certain what became of him after they left. Jo had a hard feeling in her throat, I felt dizzy, and the shop was, in general, much quieter. Nancy confirmed that Zebee was no longer with us. Although my dizzy spells subsided, I was filled with sadness for having lost the tough little Maltese.

Then, I realized that this was not the time to grieve for Zebee. There were other dogs at the shop who still needed tended to; I had to be strong for them. It occurred to me that I had to have the strength of Zebee to get through the rest of my day's grooms, and suddenly I was inspired. All of the dogs went out looking great, and afterward we all remarked about how incredible it was for Zebee to hold on as long as he did, even when things looked bleak.

In my younger days, I questioned the nature of the social animal. Why form bonds when ultimately, they will one day be broken? Among other things, these ever-important bonds lead to our own personal improvement, whether it is shared between friends of the two-legged or four-legged variety. It isn't always easy to stand in the face of adversity, but this little Maltese did it on a daily basis. I'm glad to have known Zebee, and I wish to share in his strength.

It's never really goodbye; there will always be another dog show.
See you on the other side Zeb!