Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reaching the Animal Mind - Karen Pryor

Pure luck united me with Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind. I was picking up a library book when I glanced over at the new books. There was this dog looking back at me - I probably would have grabbed the book on cover alone. That it happened to be by Pryor, who's book Don't Shoot the Dog! opened my mind to operant conditioning and marker training, was a super-awesome bonus.

Don't open up this book expecting a treatise on clicker training or a manual on how to modify behavior. And if you've never heard of marker or clicker training, you might want to read up on the matter beforehand. You won't be missing out, of course, but I think you'll have a greater appreciation for the content if you have a basic understanding of the subject.

Anecdotes of the efficacy of marker training abound - from errant dogs to hard-headed horses to stubborn dolphins, Pryor weaves in decades of experience with the message, it can be done. It being that magic spark, that dance, that special relationship most people want from/with their companion animals. It can be fun, and anyone can do it!

While I thoroughly enjoyed the story-telling, as a person who feels other nonhumans are beings, not things, I had a hard time getting past the lack of personal pronouns. Clearly engaging, thinking animals are continually referred to as "it", with few exceptions. I have yet to meet a sofa or blanket who can problem solve like a dolphin or even show pretty neat cognitive abilities like the hermit crab and damselfish Pryor teaches. It was also hard for me to stomach all the dolphin stories. Most of the dolphins Pryor worked with happened to be wild-caught animals. These are animals who are generally incredibly social, who spend their time swimming great distances, and Pryor has a seemingly blase attitude about the capture and confinement of these animals while simultaneously expounding on their incredible intelligence and complex social structure.

That aside, the book also delves into the science behind why marker training works so well, why animals trained with clickers or cues learn twice as quickly and retain that information for longer periods of time than animals who are trained via compulsion, fear or, yeah, even positive reinforcement w/o cues. The amygdala and hypothalamus make an appearance

From the book, "Dogs that are working for cues don't act like dogs that are working for commands. They are merry and enthusiastic rather than somber and cautious; I have heard traditional trainers complain that these dogs are undignified, that they 'act like puppies.' Traditionally, I guess, highly trained dogs should not give the frivolous impression that they are also having fun!"

I've seen this in my own dogs. Mina has been worked with both positive and traditional methods. She worked okay with both, meaning she'll avoid unnecessary discomfort (from a prong) and seek out pleasurable things (cookies). But now that she's working with me on clicker training, the transformation is amazing. She's learning behaviors ten times quicker than with luring and cookies, far quicker than she'd probably learn if I was into physical manipulation. Mina's "working" pre-amble is "let's play" and then we clicker train for five-ten minutes. We do this twice a day on weekdays and four-five times a day on weekends. She is joyous. And intent. All that terrier intensity and bulldog stubbornness focused on figuring out what she needs to do to get that marker which gets her that treat. She's learned to put her paw on the sofa for a two-fingered cue, stand on blocks and wave her paw. This is about her choosing, and the choices she makes determines whether she gets what she wants or not. I love watching another animal (humans included) learn!

(As an aside, those of you with super leash reactive dogs - how successful have you been w/ the sporn-type harness? Mina sprained her back doing a back-flip with a head halter. It also increased her aggressive behavior than on a flat buckle or, yeah, prong collar. I've tried the regular halter w/ the leash hooked up to the front o-ring - not helpful. Right now, she works well on a prong. She may have a great heel, and she naturally walks a loose-lead, but when she sees another dog, all bets are off and she is in the zone. I haven't tried a real anti-pull halter, though. I have a feeling the clicker isn't going to be meaningful to Mina when she is in the zone, but on our next walk, perhaps I'll try.)

Celeste is equally joyful. She is a lot more forceful and excitable about the whole process. She takes a little longer than Mina too (who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? Mina's 11, Celeste is 2!) Right now we're working on "touch", which involves her nose touching my hand - it will help with heel, luring, etc. She gets far more frantic and a little nippy, so we've been working on gentle food scarfing. I just love the intent, serious look she gets on her face while we're working.

And I have to work too! I have to think about what I want the dog to do and how to convey that message to them. I have to be careful about what I mark. It's okay if I screw up, though - no one will be left scarred! I only have to reinforce the correct behavior 75% of the time for Mina or Celeste to learn that behavior. If I mess up 15-25% of the time, no harm, no foul. I like that about marker training.

If you have an interest in anecdotal stories with humor interjected about marker training, I really rec'd this book.

That is all.


Anonymous said...

She may have a great heel, and she naturally walks a loose-lead, but when she sees another dog, all bets are off and she is in the zone. I haven't tried a real anti-pull halter, though. I have a feeling the clicker isn't going to be meaningful to Mina when she is in the zone, but on our next walk, perhaps I'll try.)

Your problem is that she is over threshold. You've got to find out how close to other dogs she can get before she loses it, and then work farther back than whatever that distance is. Some more info here

Amanda said...

Okay, this seems apt as 3 dogs chase around the house in mid-morning battle royal mode right now...a post about training huh?! HA!
Annnyway, do you use an actual clicker or just a noise? Honestly, I have avoided clicker training simply because I don't want to mess with another "thing" (the clicker)--having multiple pets and a kiddo, there is enough stuff already in my life. ;)
I might have to do some more research, it is always fun to add to the training repertoire, both for Pai and our fosters. =)

Rinalia said...

Definitely true. Problem is that I can't always avoid walking by dogs. And I can't always turn around. I'll generally get her as far away from the dog as possible, body block and then physically restrain her. I'd just rather not do it w/ a prong and am wondering if a sporn-type, actual no pull harness would be better...

Her threshold has definitely improved after years of positive training w/ a professional trainer. Her behavior is much better - she isn't the frothing crazy she used to be.

I guess I'll have to go back to basics and start working backwards. First, avoid the situation if I can. Second, go back to the space where she can be worked.


Rinalia said...

Amanda, my last trainer used her voice to make a click sound. But I think the best way to start is with an actual clicker - apparently the "brain" avenue with which you speak and with which you physically manipulate an object is different, and the latter is a lot better at capturing the exact behavior. Maybe after you've got marking behavior down, you can switch to the clicker.

I do use the clicker with Celeste on walks, even when Mina is with me. Most animals can distinguish when the click is for them and when it isn't (it's really amazing, actually). Mina's not that interested in clickers on walks so I don't have to worry about marking inappropriate behavior with her then.

Definitely check out Pryor's site and see if it's something you can fit into your life. :)

EmilyS said...

well you know a clicker is for training behavior, not for stopping behavior you don't want, so of course it can't work on a dog that's "in the zone". There are some classic techniques for counterconditioning Mina's behavior; I'm surprised you haven't tried (or maybe you have and they haven't worked?) You know: start at her threshold around other dogs (that is, before she gets in the zone), have her turn towards you, c/t; and/or sit, c/t. Gradually decrease distance to other dog blah blah. The goal is to have her associate seeing another dog with a c/t and for her default behavior when she sees another dog to be turning towards you rather than reacting to the other dog. Obviously, while you are training this, you have to try the avoidance of other dogs route!

Have you looked at "Control Unleashed"? http://controlunleashed.net/index.html
or McConnell's Feisty Fido

Rinalia said...

Hey EmilyS, Yeah I spent a good many years trying to reduce her reaction level through desensitization. And she IS better than when she was a young thing - her threshold is now 200-500' (depending on the size of dog) whereas it used to be 1/2 mile (amazingly). But we're at this stopping point now where I just cannot retain her attention once she senses the other dog. So, depending on the other dog, I'll run Mina past (she likes this) or hold her collar and body block. Sometimes I'll turn around and get her out of the situation.

I keep meaning to grab Control Unleashed. Feisty Fido helped immensely, as did the hands-on work of trainers.

I sometimes wonder if this is who she is or if I'm just using that as a cop-out. SHe's 11, been this way even after 5+ of training (professional, we're always "training"). I'm always willing to keep at it, though and it's not like I'll ever STOP walking or hiking with her. Still, I wonder. :)

Anonymous said...

I would encourage you to re-train the desensitizing you did with Mina, but with the clicker this time. You yourself noted that your dogs are learning quicker, and with more vigor than with traditional and/or positive reinforcement training alone, but that once you added the clicker method, the learning increased. So why not go back to the desensitizing training, add in the clicker game and off you go... you might find Mina surprises you. And like it's already been said, you start just this side of her threshold and work from there, setting her up for success. The turning toward you and/or sitting for the c/t when she sees another dog is a great suggestion. Turning other dogs into the cue for her to perform a task or job is much better than having to restrain her or revert to the prong collar for control.

Rinalia said...

riseabove - thank you! Really good advice. I'm realizing I just have to get back to basics with Mina and get her to enjoy the training on the walks...we'll start with some clicker games on the porch, backyard and maybe front lawn and move our way to the walks. She does have a lot more fun with the clicker training. :)