Tuesday, 22 May 2012

CAN YOU REALLY TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS?

Whilst sitting in my back garden enjoying some rare sunshine, I thought I would relax further by taking off my boots and socks and putting my sandals on. I call them my slippers because I wear them around the house. So there I was reading a good book, "How dogs Learn". by Mary Burch and John Bailey. Sitting on my decking in front of the summer house. I had just got back from work and the dogs were milling around the garden. I live in a corner property with a substantial back and side garden, which I have made completely dog proof. i.e. they cannot escape. I had taught Ben my Black Lab a few tricks and one of which was "Fetch my slippers". Labs love to "find" things, and teaching him to suss out where they were and bring them to me was a great game. I cant for sure say I know what he's thinking when he's playing this game, but you can tell from the enthusiasm he shows when I give him the cue that he is enjoying himself. But then if he didn't want to do it then he wouldn't. As with any dog, there has to be something in it for him. Over the years, and he is now nine, I have taught him many things. Initially it was basic obedience type stuff. Walk to heel, sit, stay, lie down, distance control. All of which was taught to him using the traditional training methods. Very much hands on, push down for a sit. Jerk the slip collar for a close heel, you know the type of training i'm talking about. To be fair it worked for the basic stuff and I didn't need to use much in the way of 'encouragement' to get him to comply with what it was I wanted him to do. He was a very willing learner even from an early age. It wasn't however until a few years ago that I learned about positive reward training and I was introduced to 'Clicker training'. I have five dogs which I got at varying times and their ages range from two two nine. I have A northern Inuit, two Black Labs and two cross breeds. Miya the Northern Inuit was the newest dog to come into the family about the time I was picking up the Clicker Training. So I set about teaching her with a clicker. Her training came on a treat, and pretty soon she had the basics down, flying through her Road Safety Obedience tests at the local training school. She completed Novice all the way up to Senior Advanced in two years. I started going to crufts round about then and was amazed at the heel work to music demonstrations. Not because I wanted to have a dancing dog to music, but some of the 'tricks' that the handlers were getting their dogs to do was amazing. When I came back I decided to try some of these on my lot using a clicker. Ben was now about seven which is a fair age in doggy years. I started clicker training with Ben, and he took to it like a Lab to water. Why? because it involved food rewards. The one thing I have learned about Labs is that they will walk over hot coals for a treat. Not that I have ever had a Lab walk over hot coals I might add, or anything else equally as dangerous. I began retraining him on the obedience stuff, partly because he already knew it so it would be easy for him, and partly to improve the speed at which he performed a sit, or down or came in to recall. Using the reward method made him up his game and it felt a lot better rewarding him for getting it right rather than punishing him for doing it wrong. This form of learning is called Operant Conditioning. There are four procedures to Operant Conditioning, Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment. The procedure described above is Positive Reinforcement - "A behavior that is followed by a stimulus that is rewarding". In Ben's case doing a sit and then getting a nice treat. Note that the treat has to be worth it for this procedure to work effectively. I will go into the other procedures in my next Blog. Having retrained Ben on all the obedience stuff I started to teach him some tricks. I bought a couple of books on the subject, Mary Rae's book on heel work to music, and Karen Pryor's Clicker training. Both are excellent books for teaching your dog new things. I have been keeping this up now for a few years teaching all of the dogs new things. But recently I have been teaching Ben to 'fetch my slippers'. My thinking is that Labs are scent hounds and well my slippers give off a strong scent. So I would sit down stairs and send him up to one of the rooms to find my slippers. He always loves the 'find the' games. Using the clicker and a nice reward it didn't take too long for him to pick it up. So as I sat on the deck of the summer house and said to Ben, "fetch my slippers" and I pointed to the conservatory doors so that I was giving him a clue that he should go in the house to get them. He looked at me rather confusingly, moving from side to side, and looking towards the side garden round behind the large leylandii trees separating the back garden from the side garden.  I said to him "no, in the house son, fetch my slippers". He was clearly becoming distressed at my insistence that he go in the house and so he took off round the other side of the trees. Disappointed that it looked like I would have to go and get them myself I sat back down. As I looked along the fence to a gap in the trees I could see Ben making his way back with something in his mouth. Low and behold it was my slipper. "What was it doing in the side garden I asked him". As if he was going to answer. "Ok so you took that out when I came home and wasn't looking, so go and fetch my other slipper". Same again he disappears round the side garden. And once again he wanders back with the second slipper in his mouth. So a lesson to be learned, it's ok teaching your dog a new trick like fetch the slippers, or open the cupboard door. But be aware that once they know how to do this they will do it when you least expect or want them to. Be warned.

See you soon.........

Sunday, 13 May 2012

THE EVOLUTION OF DOG TRAINING

Dog training was no doubt first taught when the cavemen took wolf cubs into their caves. Initially to serve as companions, and as guard dogs. There is evidence of early cave drawings showing how important animals were to our earliest human ancestors.
For centuries dogs have been trained by humans for a variety of reasons. The Romans trained their pups for herding. In the 1700 and 1800's the dog world in the UK showed sporting breeds that were trained to walk round the ring. Training dog to win obedience competitions didn’t really come about until the 1930’s in America.


A lady called Helen Whitehouse Walker, who bred Standard Poodles, decided to show the dog world that her dog was more than just a pretty face.
The dog training club was born, at least in the US. Dogs were trained for war, they were trained to be actors. Remember Rin Tin Tin? And who could forget Lassie? Many of the early trainers came form military or Police backgrounds. The methods used by these early trainers would probably be regarded as heavy handed by todays standard. One man in particular could be credited for having a major influence in dog training methods in the US.
William Koehler was a renowned trainer for consistently winning team obedience training competitions. By 1960, 40'000 dogs had been trained through Koehler’s school. Koehler was also lead animal trainer for Walt Disney. His method of training is largely based on the principle of negative reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement is were a dog does what you want, to avoid an unpleasant experience. Probably the most frequently used example of negative reinforcement in dog training is the use of a choke chain. Once a dog has experienced the jerk on the chain around its neck, most dogs will work hard to avoid it happening again. Koehler used a choke chain to teach dogs to walk to heel, spinning around and going in the opposite direction when a dog went out in front. Blanche Saunders, a friend of Helen Whitehouse Walker was another user of negative punishment as a training tool. Saunders used to teach her students the ‘Heel, Jerk, Praise’ method. Believing that once physical punishment had been delivered, lavish praise should be given for the corrected behaviour. Basically, once you jerked on the chain and the dog spun to your heel you told him what a good boy he was. Food training was almost unheard of in those days. New skills were taught using physical prompts. The lie down was taught by standing on a shortened leash. The sit was taught by ‘shoving’ the dogs bum down into position. Jumping up could be cured by kneeing the dog in the chest. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that a more positive training approach was used to teach dogs obedience. Winifred Strickland, known as the first super trainer introduced a more humane kinder method of teaching her dogs obedience. However she still never advocated the use of food as a reward claiming that giving your dog food was encouraging the dogs to think more of their stomachs than their owners. It wasn’t until the science of dog learning, dog behaviour, merged with Dog training that dog training really took off. Knowing how a dog learns and what motivates a dog is now seen as the most effective method of teaching your dog, encouraging the right behaviours and discouraging the unwanted behaviours. Dog owners are becoming more knowledgable and are demanding to know more about how their dog thinks, and works. Todays trainer needs to be armed with the right tools in order to meet this demand. Canine Psychology is now an important part of learning dog training and as trainers we should all embrace this science. It can only make us better trainers and our dogs more socially acceptable.

See you soon ..........