Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Use Your Voice In Training

Here's a tip on how to use your voice more effectively in training.

Voice Training for Dummies
Dogs are emotional. They learn things through the changes that take place in their emotional states. One of the most important tools a trainer or owner has, in terms of applying the proper emotion to a training situation, is how they use their voice.

Years ago I was working with a beautiful blue great Dane named Achille (Ah-sheel). His owners said he was nervous about meeting people on the streets of New York. He was a beautiful dog and it wasn’t uncommon for people to stop and stare and want to say hello. Achille didn’t like this. He would bark nervously at strangers: “Ruff, ruff! Stay away!”

My job was to fix this. So on each of our training walks I took along a pocketful of treats. And every time someone commented on how handsome Achille was, etc., I would thank them then explain what I was trying to do to help him, and would they mind showing him a treat and telling him to sit?

Most people said yes. But once I'd given them the treat, quiet a few were very stern about how they gave the command, which caused Achille to bark at them. Some, though, gave the command in a very pleasant tone of voice, and when they had a different tone, Achille sat quite quickly and was very happy to do so. So I changed tactics: once they agreed to help out, instead of asking them to “tell” Achille to sit, I always phrased it thusly: “Could you show him a treat and then ask him to sit?” This almost always changed the way they interacted with the dog, and as a result he learned not to be so afraid of strangers.

I was in a somewhat similar situation the other day. A woman who lives down the hall from me recently adopted a young Lab/pit bull mix named Diva, and I ran into them at the dog run. At one point Diva was showing an avid interest in the far corner of the run where the garbage bags, etc., are stored in a large industrial-plastic type container, which sits pushed up against the fence. Diva was fascinated with it, smelling all around the container, even pushing herself between it and the fence. (My feeling was that it was a popular spot for rats to hang out at night.)

Diva’s owner was saying, “No, stop that,” and trying to pull her away from those fascinating smells. So I suggested that we just walk away instead.

Once we were a good distance away, Diva was torn between following us and continuing with what her nose was telling her to do.

To overcome this final bit of resistance, I told Diva's new mommy to praise her dog. She did, but her voice was flat and held no excitement or emotion. Then I praised Diva, and the dog got a happy look in her eyes, and immediately came running to me as if I were the most interesting thing in the world at that moment. Once Diva’s owner heard the difference in our voices, she was able to imitate the way I’d praised her dog and it had the same effect.

So, since this isn’t something that can be explained as easily in print, I’ve used my Olympus Digital Recorder to give you a few samples of how to do it. Just click here to listen.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Some Myths About Behaviorism

I've been revamping my website, and in the course of upgrading one of the articles in my list of the Top Ten Myths about dogs, I came up with some interesting, and I think, valid criticisms of one of the current trends in dog training.

Some Myths About Behaviorism
Dog trainer and behavioral expert Patricia McConnell wrote in Bark Magazine not too long ago, "The process of learning is pretty much the same whether you're a pigeon, a planarian [flatworm] or, come to think of it, a philosophy professor."

Of course what McConnell means is that when an animal of any kind finds that a behavior produces positive results, it will have a tendency to choose that behavior over and over again. And that's true. But the implication is that there is only one type of training that works for all dogs (i.e., the "cookie-cutter" approach), and that all training should be based strictly on giving a dog rewards for good behavior.

What's wrong with using rewards?

Nothing. But for most behavioral science-oriented trainers that usually means food, partially because the foundation of behavioral science is built almost exclusively on the behaviors of albino rats locked inside Skinner boxes, and partially because it's usually the easiest and quickest way to get a dog's attention. As for those rats, their only motivation for learning to press a lever was supposedly to get a food pellet. But dogs aren't rats. Plus we don't normally train them inside boxes in a research lab.

"Yes," positive trainers would argue, "But whether the incentive in dog training is a treat or being given a ball to chase, it still boils down to one thing: positive reinforcement."

I agree. But as soon as we get locked-in to the idea that the linear, cut-and-dried precepts of behavioral science can show us all the answers, we don't keep our minds open to other possibilities. And far too many trainers these days consider food to be a universal reward. And that tiny little flaw in thinking keeps some dogs from ever being fully trained. If you're a dog owner who's been to a +R trainer and you tried to follow the protocols they gave you but found they didn't work, what was the first thing they said in reply? Probably: "Up the value of your treats!" (I had a client who complained, "What am I supposed to do, slaughter a cow and take the carcass with me on our walks?")

It's also instructive to understand that behavioral science techniques are notoriously ineffective when it comes to curing serious behavioral problems. The best proof of this is The Dog Who Loved too Much by Nicholas Dodman, even though Dodman didn't consciously write the book as a critique of behavioral science but as a justification for using drugs. But if behavioral science techniques were really effective we wouldn't need drugs except where there's a definite physiological cause of the behavior.

It's also interesting that Patricia McConnell has a much better success rate in solving behavioral problems than Dodman does. Much better. I think there are probably two reasons for this: 1) McConnell genuinely loves dogs while Dodman reportedly doesn't even like them, and 2) McConnell's protocols for solving behavioral problems also include teaching obedience skills, Dodman's doesn't. (Since all obedience behaviors are based on the predatory motor patterns of wild wolves, and since the prey drive is the key organizing force behind all canine social behavior, it stands to reason that teaching obedience skills will have some positive effect on bringing a dog's emotions back into alignment with his owner's needs.)

Going back to Skinner, I think we need to consider that when he proposed his theories it was widely believed that animals didn't even have emotional lives. With some of the recent advances in neuroscience, and the discovery of the same emotional circuits that exist in both the non-human and human brain, we now know that animals can be very emotional. This is especially true of dogs. Yet the behavioral science approach is based almost exclusively on changing a dog's behavior with little thought given to the underlying emotional cause of that behavior.

Some in the field would disagree. They would say that they're very conscious of how emotions affect behavior. I have no doubt that that's true. But the techniques they use are still based on a clinical, unemotional, Skinnerian foundation, one that's simply not geared to change a dog's emotions as much as it is to change his behavior. That kind of thinking is built in to the system despite the fact that all behavior, learned or instinctive, is the end product of emotion. In fact without emotion there would be no such thing as positive reinforcement. This is not something that factored in to Skinner's equations at the time he made them. It should be factored in now, but from my observations that rarely happens.

Meanwhile in Natural Dog Training our focus is always on changing the dog's emotional state first because we know once we do that and bring the dog's emotions back into balance, the right behavior will always follow.

It was also believed during Skinner's time that the foundation of all animal behavior was geared specifically around the survival instinct, so when his rats pressed the lever and "learned" to make food appear, it made sense that their only impetus for doing so was based on their own survival: food is necessary for survival, therefore food is a primary reinforcer. But with the current trend in science to find and understand the roots of "biological altruism," the tendency in social animals (and even in some non-social species) to give up what's in one's own "self" interest in order to help another animal in need, the primacy of the survival instinct is starting to seem a bit mothworn if not badly outdated. Biological altruism is a huge puzzle because it implies that a very important aspect of Darwinism (and one that has a domino effect on behaviorism as well), may not, in fact, be what it seems.

Strangely enough, the clearest window into this puzzle (or perhaps not so strangely) is the domesticated dog. No species is more famous for its ability, let alone its outright unstoppable zeal for putting its own survival on the line in order to help those it loves. In the past few months alone (I'm writing this in July of 2009), there have been two videotaped incidents of dogs dashing into traffic in order to rescue a fallen comrade, one was on a freeway in Chile and other on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx.

This brings up another point about the difference between Pavlov's and Skinner's era and ours (i.e., the early 20th Century v. the early 21st Century). Back in Skinner's day it was believed that all animals were vying for dominance within their own habitats as well as within their own social groups. And just like the beliefs about the survival instinct which accompanied and most probably engendered this Darwinian idea, the underlying principle was that animals always put their own "self" interest above all else. And that's simply not true. It's especially not true in dogs, and it turns out that it's not even true in wolves. And yet every single dog trainer who espouses behavioral science as the bedrock of all animal learning is still operating under this false premise. They don't accept the fact that sometimes the survival instinct simply isn't operational, which means that sometimes a primary reinforcer is not only not primary it's not a reinforcer. And yet we're told time and again: "Up the value of your treats!" (I'm not saying that Darwin's theory is wrong, or that evolution isn't a real process, or that treats aren't valuable in dog training, nor am I saying that the survival instinct isn't an important part of the evolutionary process, just that it's not as important as we once thought it was, which again has a domino effect on Skinner's theories about behavior.)

One of the clearest examples we see of a dog's ability to routinely override its own survival instinct is in dogs who do search-and-rescue work. With the recent explosion of interest in behavioral science some search-and- rescue dogs have been trained exclusively with food and clickers. There was great hope in certain quarters that this would be the dawn of a new age of perfectly conditioned working dogs. But in the end most of these dogs have proven unreliable, especially when forced to work for long hours, because they’ll often indicate a false positive just to get a treat.

"Dogs want rewards," says Dr. Lawrence J. Myers, of Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine, "So they will give false alerts to get them."

Giving a false alert is something a dog trained through his prey drive would never do; he wouldn't know how. He'll work for hours and won't quit until he finds exactly what he's looking for. Why? Because he's focused on hunting, not on getting an external reward. The only problem they had with the search-and-rescue dogs at Ground Zero was making them stop to rest. Those amazing animals would have kept working until they found a survivor or a body or just dropped dead themselves. Is that courage? Is that altruism? Or is that just the way dogs are?

Kevin Behan made a very insightful comment on his blog recently. (If you don't know this, Kevin spent a major portion of his career training police dogs and detection dogs, using their prey drive - not food rewards - as the focal point of learning.)

"Search-and-rescue dogs can search disaster sites whereas no other animal can be conditioned to do so, which is especially revealing since cats and monkeys are far better adapted, physically speaking, for such work. One can acclimate a police dog to love running up a metal fire escape with someone throwing metal pots and pans down at it. All these so-called negatives ... arouse [the dog's] prey-making urge to an even greater pitch."

Can you imagine what those pots and pans would do to cats and monkeys? Is it even remotely possible that they could be trained to run up a fire escape while you're throwing loud, clattering objects at them? Even if they did make it to the top, my bet is that their first priority after getting there would be to find a safe place to hide and not come out for days.

Monkeys clearly have more mental agility than dogs. And to a large extent, so do cats. And Kevin's insight is, as usual, dead-on; both species are also more physically agile when put in the kinds of situations that most search-and-rescue dogs find themselves in. So if learning is only about reinforcing the behaviors you want from an animal, and monkeys and cats are smarter and more physically capable of working in and around disaster sites, why can't they be conditioned to do it?

Because they don't want to. Dogs, on the other hand, live for this kind of stuff. Talk about treats, they eat this stuff up. When dogs are trained properly, through their prey drive, they're absolutely driven to find survivors at a disaster site, or to sit and stay and come when called, or to do whatever else you want them to. They'll do it: no questions asked, no treats expected. You can't condition that kind of willingness into a cat or monkey just as you can't condition it out of a dog.

If we apply this lesson to flatworms and philosophy professors we can see that Patricia McConnell's idea really is off, particularly since she's a dog trainer herself, and particularly since the quote in question came from a piece she wrote for a magazine devoted exclusively to canines.

Again, I'm not saying that conditioning isn't a valid form of learning. It is. It has its place; there's no question about that. But in some cases, at least where dogs are concerned, there may be a much better alternative. You simply have to open your mind a little to see it.

And no, all animals don't learn the same way. Dogs are different. And it's their very difference that can help us see some of the cracks in the foundations of behavioral science.  

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"