Monday, March 29, 2010

My first real counter-conditioning success

Elo freaks out at windshield wipers. Actually, let me put that in the past tense--Elo USED TO freak out at windshield wipers. As soon as you would turn them on, he would bark, growl, lunge, be all over the dashboard biting at the windshield and would take awhile to calm down and stop growling after they were turned off. Ok, a little funny, but not so funny when you forget your wiper-reactive dog is sitting next to you in the car, go to clean your windshield out of habit, and nearly have a heart attack when he explodes next to you. Not so funny when you have the choice of not bringing that dog along when it's raining, or bringing him along and hoping you don't crash for lack of ability to see out your windshield.

So, I set out to fix it. My first issue was how to get Elo under threshhold. In the car there was no way to keep him from reacting, and I didn't think he would react outside of the car. I was wrong about that, I found out--he reacted from like 10 away from the car (he was in the backyard, the car was in the driveway), but got over it much faster.

I grabbed a bucket of yummy treats, a clicker, and sat in the driver's seat with Elo outside the car on the ground next to me. He could hear the wipers, but couldn't see them very well from where he was. I swished them once and immediately clicked and treated before he even had a chance to think about reacting. That was most of our first session. Towards the end, I sped up the tempo a little. It actually went really well! After the first ten reps or so, he started to view the wipers almost as if they WERE the clicker and looked for his treat each time. We ended there.

In the next session, we started where we ended the first session for a little review. Then I had him get in the car. He was a little concerned, but we backed up a bit and he quickly realized we were playing the same game. Within a few minutes, I had him sitting calmly with the wipers on full speed!! We took a short break and then went for a drive, during which I ran the wipers intermittently, still clicking and treating for calm. It was a complete success! I know we will need to practice more to solidify the change in behavior, but I'm calling it a win!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Reinforcement

First, the definition of reinforcement: "In operant conditioning, a consequence to a behavior in which something is added to or removed from the situation to make the behavior more likely to occur in the future."

Reinforcement is defined as ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. I think I've mentioned this concept before, but we do not get to pick what is reinforcing for our dogs (or for other humans or any creature or being). Reinforcement is unique to the individual.

I have such a hard time when I hear people say things like "I don't use treats, because praise and petting should be enough for my dog." That is like saying "I don't pay my employees with money, because they should work just for the satisfaction of a job well done." And indeed, for some people, a "good job" from the boss may very well be reinforcing enough to ensure continued good performance or even increase the level of performance. The opposite is also true, while most people work "for money" simply because it is necessary to living, for some people, a paycheck every two weeks is not enough to ensure good performance or motivate a boost in performance.

Dogs are the same way. For some dogs, praise/petting very well MAY be reinforcing for the dog. But each dog is an individual, reinforced and motivated by different things. Food, toys, play, a chance to go outside, an opportunity to chase a squirrel. In some cases when we say "a dog SHOULD work for praise" it is a case of imposing our morality on the dog--we are higher than the dog, we are the dogs master/leader, the dog should recognize that fact and obey (a major pet peeve of mine, but a topic for another day). But in other cases, we are simply making fault assumptions about what motives "all" dogs--after all, dogs like to be petted, it's rewarding for them, right?

In other cases (in, ahem, MY case) we make fault assumptions about what is NOT reinforcing for the dog. Case in point, an owner who pushes the dog off of themselves every time the dog jumps up--potentially an aversive for some dogs, but a wonderfully fun game for many that actually reinforces the behavior the owner is trying to prevent. Or in Jun's case, by me putting on her bark collar.

Jun is a terrible barker. For a long time after she first came to live with me, she wore a bark collar nearly all the time. We would do trial periods without the collar, but the second she started barking, I put on the collar. She knew what it was and would not bark with it on. This "positive punishment" method largely cured her barking problem and I was eventually able to leave the bark collar off most of the time for several months.

Fast forward to laying in bed one random morning after Jun had had the privilege of sleeping without the collar for quite some time . . . I heard the worst screams I have ever heard, unlike any sound I'd ever heard from Jun before (and that's saying something--the dog has a bark a thousand times worse than nails on a chalkboard). I was convinced she was being murdered and ran out to the living room to check on her. I found her staring at the wall in apparent terror with huge round eyes, crouching, body inclined backwards. I had no idea what she saw or thought she saw that set her off, but I immediately comforted her, opening her crate, letting her out, petting her. When she seemed to calm down, I put her in her crate and went back to bed. A few minutes later, the same thing happened, and I responded the same way. I can't remember how many times this happened, and it may have been over a period of days, but at some point I realized, that when I went out to "check on" her, she would go from looking terrified (as I understood the body language she was displaying), to instantly composing herself and looking self-satisfied as soon as she saw me walk into the room. It was a huge "oh crap" moment for me. My dog had trained me yet again and I'd been reinforcing the barking all along--for days even, I think. (Whether a dog can "fake" fear or whether petting reinforces fear is also a topic for another day. My take on it, in a nutshell, is that Jun learned that particular body language and a particular bark got her attention. I think she may have truly been afraid of something the first time, but after that I really think it was a learned behavior reinforced by the attention she got.)

I started using the bark collar again--just like the last time, putting it on anytime she started barking (and here's the real eye-rolling moment--usually with a scratch or a pat as I did it, cause I felt bad about using it again). This went on for months. Probably nearly a year now, and the barking just got worse and worse. She also learned to bark around her collar--very high-pitched barks would not set it off--so even with the collar on, the barking did not stop completely.

Suddenly, one day not too long ago, as I walked towards her with her bark collar I noticed a sparkle in her eye and a slight wag of her tail. It was a total light-bulb moment. I was reinforcing her barking by putting on her bark collar!!!!! The former aversive had actually become a reinforcer for the very behavior I was trying to use it to stop!!!! It was mind boggling to me, but suddenly everything made perfect sense.

I decided to stop using the collar altogether. Jun has not worn it in five days. If we're at home and Jun is barking in her crate, I leave the room or turn away, careful not to make any eye contact or acknowledge her in any way. When she is calm and quiet, I occasionally give eye contact and even a treat now and then or let her out of her crate. The first night, she barked (actually, "screamed" is probably more apt) off and on for at least an hour. The next night a bit less, and then less. Last night, I think she barked once before going to sleep for the night. Car rides, I hesitate to say so as not to jinx it, have been quiet. The barking is still there, but getting less and less every day, in just FIVE DAYS as compared to the nearly a year that I spent using other methods to try to fix the barking.

It's classic positive reinforcement theory at it's most basic: ignore the bad, reinforce the good. But first I had to accept the fact that I don't get to choose what is reinforcing for Jun. She chooses. I adapt.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My cats

Haha! Kidding. I don't have any. I was going to title the post "My dogs and stuff" but then I thought, ok, really, what else do I write about here? So I thought I'd go for the joke.

Well, Dexter got adopted a couple weekends ago and life is back to normal. I've been very happy with all three dogs lately, except for Lok's "destroying stuff" streak that lasted a week, but seems to have subsided for now. He gets frustrated once in awhile. I don't blame him. I probably would too if I used to be able to see and now couldn't. I've been largely NOT training him lately. Trying to figure out who he is, what he wants in life. He's actually been pretty happy lately. Lots of tail wagging . . . well, lots for Lok. He's not much of a wagger.

Jun has been doing mostly disc work. Set-up moves, still working the RLV, which is coming along VERY nicely. Happy with that. We'll see how it translates to a field. I'm not sure if I'm gonna try it at Pet Expo. I'm not sure if I'm gonna try any vaults at Pet Expo. We shall see. Excited for this nice weather to melt all the snow so we can get out and really play! Last night I taught Jun to close the dish washer by pushing it up with her nose. She caught on really quickly and loved it. I think I'm going to get some plastic dishes for her so I can teach her to "load" the dish washer too. That would be a cute trick and she has all the foundation for it. Oh . . . just had a thought . . . I should probably start with cups and bowls. Plates are probably a little too frisbee-like.

Elo has been a good boy lately. I was just thinking last night about how far he's come since he came to live with me. Playing with all three in the yard used to be frustrating because Elo would spend the entire time alternately stealing the other dogs' toys and barking at EVERYTHING. Well, he no longer steals the other dogs' toys. Instead, he spends his time outside playing fetch or chewing on his OWN toy. He also has gotten SOOOO much better with the barking. If he's involved in a game he generally ignores everything else around him. But now, even when he's tired of playing fetch and is just doing his own thing, I can call him off of almost anything he decides to bark at, even cars driving by the yard--previously an exercise in futility.

I'm not quite sure what happened, and I don't think I can credit my excellent dog training skills for the improvement, cause I didn't really "work on it" at all. There was a point when I decided I wasn't going to tolerate barking anymore and as soon as he went off barking I called him. If he didn't come, I walked him down and then I put him inside in his crate. I only remember doing that a few times though. Maybe that was all it took? Or maybe our relationship has developed to a point where I've become more important than barking at things. When people tell me they're having recall problems with their dog (especially border collies, since I know other breeds aren't as easy), one of the first things I wonder about is what is their relationship with their dog like? Does the dog find being around them to be a good thing? More importantly is the owner seen by the dog as "the source of all good things." I know it's not the only necessary component for a solid recall, but I do think it IS one of the more important ones. Often I hear "practice, practice, practice" as a remedy for a shaky recall. But no matter how much practice you do with a recall, when it counts, your dog is only going to come to you if they have a good reason.

I don't know, but either way, I'm glad he's stopped. Now I don't have to threaten to cut off his other leg with a saw anymore!