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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Puppy Trains Author!

I've long admired what positive reinforcement (clicker training, behavior modification) can accomplish, and I've tried putting it into practice with the not-so-new-anymore puppy. With the basic principles in mind, I've kept an eye on consequences. When he does what I want, good things usually happen. Take, for example, getting ready for a walk. Once his brain recovers from the ecstasy of anticipation, he can and does "sit" to have the leash put on, which requires no food reward, just leaving the house. First thing in the morning, he must go outside and pee before he is allowed back in the house. (You can imagine why this rule is necessary, especially when it's raining.)

The most fun is "circus dog." After dinner, I bring out the dried liver treats and we go through his tricks. I don't use a clicker, just "good dog" and then a tiny treat. He is totally into it, alert and eager. We rocket through "sit", "down", "speak", "shake hands". At risk of sounding disloyal, I should clarify that this is not a dog that Mensa will be recruiting. "Sit" came easy and so did "down" (meaning to lie down), with separate hand signals. But to go from "down" back up to "sit" was incomprehensible. "Sit" meant put your butt down. If you were in "down" your butt was already down, so what could "sit" possibly mean then? Bafflement. Eventually we clarified that the front end mattered also and that hoisting it up could be part of "sit". Whatever. Humans are so strange... (I suspect he is still foggy on the concept and just trying the most promising positions until I produce the treat.)

An even more challenging task has been for him to climb onto a little foot stool and sit there. It's less than a foot high, but he was initially horrified when I picked him up and set him down on it. Too weird. Unnatural. Possibly dangerous. No way. I'd just taught him that the stool was scary. My screw-up made this a great situation for me to compare to training wild animals, who are far more cautious than domestic ones.

We started over. I didn't pick him up and set him on the stool anymore. Instead, treats appeared on the stool. Hummm, nice. Next, he found that if he put a forefoot on the stool, he got a treat. Well, that wasn't so bad either. Next was two front feet. Then I provided a boost to get the rear end up. There he was, sitting on the stool, and, my, that was worth a LOT of liver treats. And speak and shake hands worked on the stool, who would have thought? Even more treats! Tonight he discovered that he could get his own butt up on the stool, and, woot! woot! what a payoff! Fan-freakin-tastic! The stool rocks!

I am totally chuffed. It's a little dog and a simple-enough task, but I feel a warm kinship with those talented people who convince rhinos to volunteer for blood draws and elephants to stand still for artificial insemination and orangutans to let their baby take a bottle through the mesh. It's all about one step at a time with the right reward. Okay, it's more subtle than that, and I'll be the first to admit I barely qualify as a beginner. But still. This stuff works! And it's fun, fun for me and fun for a bored dog. No scolding, no force, just a sweet deal. With a rowdy game of tug-o-war afterward.

Karen Pryor seems to be good at this. Try her website. Let me know what you think.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So fun to read about you and Murphy! I am inspired to get back to brief regular sessions with Jack. You know, re: dogs being Mensa candidates, they just look at things differently than we do. Teaching the "up" or "sit" when they are lying down just doesn't make sense to them.

Though some dogs certainly are smarter than others. I have been teaching Jack "Find it" by putting him on a down-stay (still hard for him), showing him that I am putting half a pupperoni in a small cardboard box, then he stays while I go hide it. I have to keep talking while I am walking around the house or he breaks the stay. Somewhere during the walking and talking I set it on the floor behind something, in a closet, etc. Then I come back, release him and say Find it! He loves this game, getting the treat and tearing up the box, but he always looks in the places where he has found it before, then comes back out to the living room and has to be urged back to the search. Occasionally he even looks in places like the kitchen, that he could see while he was in the down-stay, just because they're close and are associated with food. But he does always find it in the end. If he gets discouraged it is a chance to try & teach him what a pointing finger means. His previous owners were supposed to have done that, as in "Get that piece of food on the floor so I don't have to pick it up" but they didn't do it.

Cheers to you and Mister Cute, sitting like a tiger on his perch.

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