I posted a fun picture of our Sam on my Facebook page, and it was great to see the pictures others shared as well. Do you have a photo of your pet to share? Please add it to this post. Just click on where you see the number of likes and shares and the image on Facebook will open.
I can’t believe Thanksgiving is around the corner. It is my favorite holiday because it is the one time of year when my whole family is together.
I think it is our family dog, Sam’s, favorite holiday too – for the extra attention AND the leftovers.
There was a time when Sam was our super beggar during the Thanksgiving meal if we did not keep him away from the table. It got me thinking that there are a lot of other families who probably have skilled beggars living in their homes, especially during this meal.
First of all, remember that if a behavior is reoccurring it is doing that because the behavior serves to get your dog something of value…in this case, the most probably reinforcer is tasty food and human attention. If you can reliably predict this scenario will play out in your home, the time to begin planning for a solution is now (actually before now, but if you really work on it between now and Thanksgiving, you’ll go a long way).
Let’s put our behavior analysis hat on to see what is going on in the environment to set the occasion for that begging. The antecedent (what occurs just before the behavior to set the occasion for the behavior) is ‘guests sitting at the table with unbelievably savory food on dishes in front of them.’ The behavior is your dog bumping or scratching guests in their seats. (We’ll call this ‘begging.’) The consequence is that eventually your dog may get either attention or turkey or jackpot – BOTH!
How can we change the environment to set your dog up for success? If you know in advance that this is highly predictable behavior, one solution is using antecedent strategies to give less value to the begging. Some ideas? Satiate your dog BEFORE you sit down by feeding him in advance, redirect his attention by giving him a tasty steak bone to chew on or a foraging toy that will keep his attention for awhile, take him for a long walk or run prior to the meal to increase the value of resting behavior, have him stay in a crate (that you have previously taught him to associate it as a positive resting place) with one of those toys, or separate him from the table with a baby gate.
Another option involves positive training. Remember, this needs to be done IN ADVANCE of your Thanksgiving Day meal. Teach your dog an acceptable, alternative behavior to pawing and scratching people that will have reinforcing consequences. Remember, as his teacher, his ability to learn is dependent on your reliability (and EVERYONE in your household) to quickly reinforce the behavior you want to see – and every time he does the behavior in the beginning.
Begin by teaching the alternative behavior (like sitting or laying down) and get it reliably on cue. Once on cue you can begin teaching him to hold that behavior for longer durations before delivering reinforcement. Then, you can cue him to do the behavior before you sit down at the table and heavily reinforce it. You can teach him to sit or lay down in a bed or on a mat as an alternative. (Please click here to read tips on teaching sit/down/stay.) Gradually then you can teach him to sit or lay down with more distance from you, then adding in teaching him the duration for his stay. And then add the difficulty of higher value food on your table.
If at any time he gets up and bets, you can simply push your plates into the center of the table and turn your back. Then wait until or cue him to sit or lay down and holds that position for 5 to 10 seconds before reinforcing him for that.
Dogs are pretty smart. If ‘you’ teach him that begging only gets people to turn away and push food aside but sitting or laying down gets a nifty treat, guess which choice he’ll make?
Now, for another issue. If you have a dog who is competing with our Sam for the title, World Champion Counter-Surfer, remember, often times the feat is carried out when your back is turned. (We know this from experience.) The simplest solution is eliminating access to the reinforcement that maintains the behavior. In other words, always be cognizant of being sure that tasty food is kept far enough from the counter edge that your dog can not reach it.
A precious and fabulous human example of the power of positive reinforcement in teaching behavior. Watch how quickly this 15 month old boy at Camp Rockmont learns to repeat behaviors, and his body language when he is doing those behaviors. Some things to notice:
Immediately after he begins to clap, the crowd claps.
When he stops clapping, the crowd stops clapping.
When he raises his hands, the crowd raises their hands too.
Do you see similarities when you train your pet with positive reinforcement?
You may or may not know, in addition to my dog training I do public relations. It’s really fun to have such different careers…and there are times where I can see parallels, especially since my PR work happens to be for causes affecting positive changes. Did I mention I love what I do on both fronts?
Friday was a very fun and busy day that combined both. I woke early to write a news release for the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (for whom I am director of public relations) before heading out to a dog training client. And, when I returned home, it was an afternoon of phone calls, deadlines, and more writing.
I was exhausted, mentally fatigued (although very fulfilled) and in need of some rejuvenation. So, what did I do? I packed my bag and headed to my gym.
It was in my car that it occurred to me how frequent it is that when people talk about exercising their pet, they mostly refer to physical exercise and often more specifically to walks. However, I talk to clients about how mental stimulation is exercise too for their pets, and an important type of exercise. (I know from first hand experience that mental exercise can be tiring.) Research has shown that dogs who work to earn their food are actually happier. Please click here to read about one study.
Birds and cats enjoy trying to figure things out too. Thursday night I sat in my birds’ room to read a book and observed that in a half hour’s time Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey, had gone to four different stations in his cage. engaging in different things – actually five if you count hanging upside down and talking to me.
Enrichment is important whether we are talking about parrots, cats, dogs, gerbils or other pets.
Friday morning at a dog training appointment we were working on the beginnings of a sit/stay on a kitchen mat. The girl we were working with loves chicken but she loves chasing balls even more. So, to add difficulty I thought we’d incorporate her ball into the exercise. After she sat on her mat, her reinforcer was seeing the ball. Then I practiced first pretending to throw the ball. If she broke her sit, the ball went back behind my back. When she could remain seated, I released her, threw the ball and cued her to get it. Then I’d make it more difficult by getting into my game ready stance with the ball, keeping the criteria the same for giving her the opportunity to chase it.
What a fun game! Incorporated into that game were learning the skills of go to your mat, sit, stay, release, get your ball, and come back. Wow, and she had no idea she was in class. She just knew she was having fun.
The thing is she was not even doing that much physical exercise but mentally her brain was having to work super hard. It was exhausting. After not long she was panting and needed a mental release break, which was playing with a Kong toy.
There are a number of points I could make here but the one I set out to talk about was that when we talk about exercising our pets, we should not discount the importance of mental exercise as much as physical.
Besides, it can strengthen your relationship with your pet just as it strengthens your pet’s muscles. And it sure does make life more fun.
Looking for a good book to teach your kids about being a dog friend? What makes Good Dog! Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior and Training different is that it is written by kids for kids. Evelyn Pang and Hilary Louie began writing this book when they were 9 years old, and it was published when they were 14. In a simplistic style they explain how dog’s communicate and how to train dogs in positive ways with positive reinforcement.
I love the whole idea for a book like this.
When I talk about training, two words I am more than likely to use are empowerment and choice.
Empowerment is about giving our animals as much control over their behaviors as possible. That means teaching, not by force but by choice. Instead of pushing a dog into a down, I can either capture him lying down or lure him into that position and then teach him that decision to lay down was an awesome choice by giving him a hugely valuable consequence. Or I can teach a dog who moves away from a collar when I try to put it around his neck to instead put his head through the collar on his own, all with positive reinforcement for each step along the way.
Choice is something that brings out the best in all living beings – human and nonhuman. We learn how to problem solve and how to come up with creative solutions. And we tend to become more resilient and successful.
I thought I’d talk a little about choice. We know that having the power to choose empowers and inspires us, and enriches our life. But how do we make those decisions? On any given day, how do we decide whether or not to clean our room, or choose between getting up early to exercise or sleeping an extra hour? How does your dog decide whether to bump you when you are sitting at the table or lay down with a bone? How does your bird decide whether to chew on a string of leather or scream?
It really all comes down to that age old question, “What’s in it for me?” On any given moment of any day, the choices we make are the result of our learning from past experience where the biggest reinforcement will be for us. Scientifically speaking, the ‘matching law’ suggests that an animal’s choosing one behavior over another is proportionate to the amount/duration of reinforcement.
The Matching Law
R.J. Hernstein formulated the Matching Law (1961) after an experiment working with pigeons in a Skinner box. He determined that the pigeons tended to peck the button that yielded the greater food reinforcement more often that the other button. However, the pigeon’s peck rate was similar to the rate of the reward. If the pigeons were reinforced 80% of the time for pecking the correct button, they would peck that button 80% of the time.
What is the relevance of the Matching Law to training our pets?
Know that every time your pet received reinforcement for unwanted behaviors, it is making it more difficult for you to teach value for the wanted behaviors. That is why it is so important to also do what you can in a behavior modification plan, to manage the environment so as to prevent as much as possible practice of the unwanted behaviors. And also, to pay attention so as to NOT give value to the unwanted behaviors in the event that they occur.
It is important to know that when you are teaching your pet based upon choice, their ‘choice’ will be where they have learned from prior experience the biggest value will be for them. If, for example, you have not spent the time teaching your dog that turning to you when you call will result in awesome things happening, why would he CHOOSE that over running to greet a stranger? To increase your effectiveness as your pet’s teacher, set up your pet’s environment and classroom to make the wanted choice, the BEST choice for your pet. Teach him an alternative behavior to the unwanted behavior and give that huge value.
This picture makes me very uncomfortable. Parents, it is so important that you help your dog to learn positive associations with your kids and little hands. A couple ideas for doing that – teach your child to wait for your dog to come to your child, how to pet your dog and when to stop, and to give your dog treats either by placing treats on the floor or in an open palm. Kids should never pull a dog or puppy by his collar. Think bite prevention and relationship strengthening.
I’ve written about so many topics relating to strengthening your ability to teach and your dog’s ability to learn. I got to thinking, if I were to create a recipe of good habits for building success in the classroom (which, by the way, is anywhere where you happen to be teaching) what would be the ingredients?
Here are my top picks:
Practice actively looking for your dog’s genius side. It is in there, trust me. Every waking moment of everyday your dog is responding to stimulus in his environment and his repeated behaviors are the ones that get him something of value. By paying attention to catching those behaviors you want to see, you will see more of those behaviors.
Practice clarity and consistency. Remember, as your dog’s teacher his ability to learn has a lot to do with your ability to provide him with clear feedback on your expectations. Know what you are looking for and do not waiver (although when you are shaping behavior, know that you may need to adjust the steps in getting there depending on how your dog learns).
Practicing learning and paying attention to what is on ‘your dog’s’ List of Awesomeness. Remember, when you train using positive reinforcement the student always gets to choose where the value is for him. If you want to build value for a behavior, teach your student to associate that behavior with a valued consequence.
Practice checking your serious side at the door. When you and your dog have fun together, it makes teaching so much easier. Think about training like a game and it will put you in a different frame of mind. Teach your dog by building joy into the lesson. You will get so much more focus from your student, who won’t even realize he is in class!
Practice being open to feedback. If your student is not getting the lesson plan, that is feedback to you that you need to alter in some way. Maybe you are asking for too big of steps, are not having a high enough value reinforce, are not clear in your criteria, are working amidst too many distractions. There are a number of reasons your dog is giving you that feedback. Be open to it and flexible to adapt.