Your Relationship with your Dog

June 17, 2011

Biologists, breeders and trainers, and champion sled dog racers, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger have more than four decades of experience with literally thousands of dogs.  They are co-authors of the book DOGS: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF CANINE ORIGIN, BEHAVIOR, AND EVOLUTION and in a discucssion about the relevance of the alpha-dog/dominance theory in training dogs they were asked how they thought people should think about their relationship with their dog?

Their reply was:

It is through social play behavior that animals learn from one another. Further, it is fun to play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.

Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff have recently drawn attention to a category of behaviors they call intentional icons. Dogs have signals they use when they want to play — the play bow. The play bow is a signal that all the following behaviors like growls and snarls are all in fun. Consider what might happen if you gave the “dominant male” intentional icon, indicating everything that happens from now on is about the driver being the dominant dog. The sled dogs, if they were reacting as submissive wolves, would then lie on their backs and pee in the air instead of running as a team.

Instead of threatening our dogs every time we want to train them, we need to perfect the human play bow which tells the dog the games are about to begin. Remember that games have rules, and what the dog and the humans learn during play is what the rules of the game are. That makes sense in teaching or training, whether it is dogs or students. The intent of dominance display is to exclude the subordinate from some activity, like breeding. The alpha wolf isn’t trying to teach the subordinate anything.”

Next time you are training your dog ask yourself whether both of you are enjoying yourselves…  Look at your dog’s body language as well as your own.  Are you sending out the right signals for your dog to be able to learn, or are you being confrontational?  Do your games have rules, and does your dog know the rules?   Try to stop thinking about your dog as an adversary or subordinate, and rather start thinking of him as a team member.  And next time you hear anything about the “wolf-pack” or dominance and submission, heed wolf expert David Mech’s words –  “Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.”

Shaping Behaviour

June 1, 2011

Imagine you are in a country where people do not speak the same language as you.  Because you can’t understand the language, following verbal instructions are obviously very difficult.  Imagine being instructed to draw a straight line on a board with a piece of chalk when you can’t understand verbal instructions. Very difficult, I’m sure you’ll agree.   Your instructor’s job, without actually showing you is to break the job down into slices and build it slice by slice.  This is shaping.

In this example, the slices would be like this.

Slice 1:  Look at the board

Slice 2:  Move toward the board

Slice 3:  Look at the chalk

Slice 4:  Touch the chalk

Clice 5:  Pick up the chalk

Slice 6:  Touch the chalk to the board

Slice 7:  Draw a line on the board.

Shaping a dog to do something works the same way.  The dog is equally disadvantaged in that he can’t speak your language.  So you break down the behaviour you want into small slices and reward each slice, gradually building the behaviour by raising your criteria as you go.  For example, the bow would be sliced up the following way:

Slice 1:  Look down

Slice 2:  Bend elbows

Slice 3:  Put elbows on floor

The interesting thing that I noticed about this video, apart from the excellent timing of the click was the presentation of the food.  What we tend to forget when we use the clicker to mark behaviour is that the food also influences what the dog is learning.  Bob Bailey said about the primary reinforcer “As much thought should go into the delivery of the primary reinforcer as goes into the secondary, or bridge (clicker).  Generally, to make this work for you, Click For Action, Feed For Position.”   This is exactly what the handler in the video clip is doing and it is very effective in getting her dog to understand what she wants.

You can also use shaping to build on an existing behaviour and this is how distance, duration and distractions are incrementally added to an already existing sit, down or heel.

There are other ways of getting behaviours that I can think of.  Luring, Moulding, Capturing and Targeting.  However, none of these are as flexible as shaping.  It is limited only by the animal’s ability and the trainer’s skill.

Sometimes the best solution is to use a combination of luring, capturing, targeting and shaping.  Get the dog on the right track by luring or targeting, then free-shape.  As a dog trainer you need to be creative and use whatever tools are available to you.

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