For the last 5 years, I have attended ClickerExpo, a conference about clicker training. Over 3 days, master instructors from North America and Europe present lectures and hands-on labs, mostly focused on dog training.
Here are a few highlights from this year's conference.
In a session on nosework, Ken Ramirez (Executive VP Animal Programs and Training, Shedd Aquarium and consultant to trainers worldwide) presented an overview of training techniques used by a variety of professionals to train dogs to alertto scent discrimination. This includes training dogs to detect bombs, drugs,agricultural products, missing people and more. These trainers want a very high level of accuracy and invest a huge amount of time training their dogs. Ken discovered that giving the dog a way to communicate "All Clear" virtually eliminated false alerts. Most handlers just train the dog to alert - sitting, or running back to handler, or doing a certain action - when they find the target item, and otherwise they are to keep searching until the handler calls them off the search. Ken's addition to the training gives the dog a way to communicate "I have looked everywhere in this area and there is nothing here", and it allows every cued search to be rewarded.
In general, we don't train our dogs to cue us very much, mostly we want to give them cues. We often find the cues they do use (barking, whining, pawing come to mind) as annoying, and we may perceive that they are trying to communicate something, but we don't know what it is. There is a lot of territory here for us to explore and to learn how to help our animals communicate with us more easily.
Kathy Sdao ACAAB (Bright Spot Dog Training, former marine mammal trainer and author of Plenty in Life is Free) spoke on Premack's principle (Dr. David Premack, Emeritus Professor of Psychology University of Pennsylvania). Briefly stated, Premack's Principle is that "high probability behavior reinforces low probability behavior". In effect, it means that we can use distractions to reinforce behaviors we want the dog to do. Kathy reminded us that we often think of Premack's Principle as "eat your broccoli, then you will get ice cream" when it is really about how likely the behavior is, how often the behavior occurs, and the context in which the behavior occurs that matters. In any given context, a behavior that occurs more often than the one you are training can be used to reinforce the behavior you are training.
For example, you are training your young dog to walk politely on leash - a low probability behavior right now - you can use wandering and sniffing - a high probability behavior in this context - to increase the polite walkingon leash. Start by training polite walking inside (where there are few distractions), get to the point where you can get several steps of polite walking on cue, then try it outside. Cue polite walking and after several steps, releaseyour dog to wander and sniff (click here for instructions on how to train a release word) for a little while. The wandering and sniffing will reinforce (will make it more likely) that polite walking will occur. I would also continue to reinforce the polite walking with clicks and treats outside, mixed up with releasing to wander and sniff. Soon, your dog will be offering to walk politely, because it predicts such great rewards in his life.
|Photo courtesy of Kathy Blackburn
Hannah Branigan KPA CTP (Wonderpups Dog Training, author - Obedience Fundamentals DVD) described how to break down the complex tasks required in competition obedience into simple steps. This is applicable to all training and I believe that the failure to break training tasks down into small enough pieces for the dog to master easily is perhaps the biggest error that dog owners make.
First, identify the training task you are having difficulty with. Take it out of it's usual context, break it down into smaller parts, design an exercise that teaches that specific small part, shape and reinforce the behavior you want, then but it back into it's appropriate context.
If you, or someone you know, needs help tackling a training problem, contact Dawn Gilkison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 971-255-7466.
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