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On Learning Theory

I am feeling a lot better today.  I got up this morning, despite a rather short sleep, feeling more or less rested.  The sun was out, and it was cool.  It still is cool.  In fact it’s supposed to go down to just 8C tonight.  The cool, clear air definitely perked me up.  For some reason it appears that I am feeling the heat this summer.  The humidity isn’t helping either.

But the real reason I think I was feeling so low yesterday is that I haven’t had any interaction with another person in days!  I didn’t realize this until my agility lesson this morning.  Social interaction really perked me up.  I live quite an isolate life right now, seeing as I am an hour from town and not working.  The only people I talk with are those I buy food from.  That makes for good discussion, but it rarely lasts more than a few minutes.  Then I’m back on my own again.

Because I am so busy with work, I have not been feeling lonely.  But apparently at some level I still am.  Spending an hour with my agility instructor this morning made it clear that I need to factor in some social time!  This will be tough because I could easily work 12-14 hours a day at my computer right now, but that is quickly becoming counterproductive.  Tomorrow I am driving into town to have lunch with a good friend.

I started my lesson by telling my instructor that I’ve been in a training funk, and a funk in general, for the last several days.  She spent the next 45 minutes problems solving with me.  We didn’t even get Hannah out of her crate until I only had 10 minutes left of the lesson!  But it was a very good session.  I discussed my frustrations with Hannah, and she theorized ways I could fix them.  We talked about learning theory, and how to reduce latency (the time gap between when you ask a dog to do something, and when the dog actually does it – my biggest challenge with Hannah).

In part I need to get on top of Hannah in areas other than training.  As I mentioned yesterday, she’s likely to blow me off for several seconds – or longer – when I call her to me.  She often acts like she thinks rules don’t apply to her.  While this may not be a big deal around the house, it sure is a problem when working stock.  To fix this, I need to let her know this is not acceptable.  This means withholding reward if she isn’t fast enough: you pick a time line, say 3 seconds, count to three and if the dog hasn’t listened then it doesn’t get rewarded, even if it does what you asked on the 4th second.  When what she is doing is self-rewarding – for example, sniffing about the garden – you take that away from her.  I’m to walk over, slip a leash around her neck, and march her into the house.  Better yet, put her straight into a crate.  Positive, my instructor reminded me, is not permissive.

On sheep this is going to be trickier, but it should work.  This winter I put pace back on Hannah by simply calling her off sheep when she wouldn’t listen when I asked her to slow down.  I will need to go back to that.  It only took a couple of times for her to smarten up and pay attention.  The difference was so dramatic that it was clear to me that she really was blowing me off.  Brat.

Regarding whistles, my instructor insisted that I need to keep pairing voice and whistle commands (whistle first, followed by voice) to really solidify her cues.  I find that Hannah just tunes out the new cue, but my instructor suggested trying to do this away from sheep.  Like on a basket ball.  Sounds ridiculous, I know, but Hannah will actually flank around a basket ball.  Perhaps I can get her to listen to my whistles this way.  Certainly I can’t see how it could hurt.  I’ll likely give this a try this evening.

I was also given a list of recommended books on learning theory, which I am going to start reading.  I also need to watch the new Derek Scrimgeour DVD that a good friend sent me a few weeks ago.  The more new ideas I have, the better able I will be to fix the problems we are facing in training right now.  The biggest right now, however, is my morale!

I am interested in learning more about learning theory, but I have to say I have some trepidation around the extreme worship of Behaviourism that I see in the dog training world.  While training methods based on behaviourist beliefs work on both dogs and humans, this school has been largely rejected as a comprehensive way of explaining, understanding and predicting human behaviour.  I would argue the same is true for dogs.  I am currently reading The Culture Clash, wherein author Jean Donaldson offers two understandings of dogs: 1) that they are like little humans, and think and behave like we do; and 2) they are a black box that respond to stimulus with behaviour.  Donaldson tells us to face up to reality: the black box model is the correct one.

In my opinion dogs lie somewhere in between, likely a lot closer to the human end of the spectrum than most people would like to accept.  They are smart, and they don’t necessarily have to be taught like machines.  The step by step methods presented in most dog training books are not necessarily needed because that’s the only way dogs learn, but rather because that’s the most straight forward way for us to communicate what we want.  But a dog like Hannah can extrapolate very, very quickly.  In part some of her issues I am sure come from being bored as she waits for me to figure things out and learn the next step to teach her.  We discussed this as well, and ways I can liven things up.  Apparently even doing something simple like throwing toys around that she must ignore will heighten focus and thus attention and response.

We didn’t get around to working with Kess as the next student was already waiting by the end of our lesson.  I’m going to do some work with her this evening here at home. And with the others.  The little bit of brain work I did with them the other night made them so happy I couldn’t believe it.  I need to do this kind of training more often.  Oh how I wish there were more hours in the day!  Or less work to be done during them.  I am going to try really, really hard to take one day off this week – Sunday – because I am definitely burning out.  And I’ve only just begun the crazy year I have ahead of me.

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5 Responses

  1. I read Culture Clash several years ago as a newbie and have come to reject some of what it contains – for instance the notion that dogs are lemon-heads that respond largely only out of instinct to stimuli. I embraced the book at the time I read it – but over time I’ve come to my own understanding of dogs – and as you mention in your post trepidation of the worship of behaviorism I’ll mention that I was guilty of falling solidly into one camp of training for years – despite the fact that the prescribed methods did not work for my dogs.

    I took it as a personal failure that I had been unable to overcome my dogs’ behaviors. I was fortunate to meet a trainer who explained to me that many of the methods I employed (all positive) simply would not be effective with my dogs since their degree of angst was so over the top.

    She did not, obviously, recommend harsh training methods, and nothing that I had done had been to my dogs’ detriment even though it hadn’t worked. She did, however, make clear that what she suggested to help my dogs was a form of compulsion. I was very against this idea – but in the end, I used it (in the manner of making my dog walk with me to the park in order to overcome her fear of smells (long story) – and it worked.

    I didn’t drag her, but I did not let her go home either. It took 45 minutes to walk three blocks. Once we’d done it though, the fear was gone. Trying to motivate her to make the decision on her own (as well as using the open bar -closed bar method when other dogs approached) had failed.

    The thing is, all beings are individuals so just as no one health protocol works for all dogs, neither does one training methodology.

    I guess the lesson I learn over and over again is that I tend to isolate or compartmentalize things – when in truth, it’s all conected. Life and beings are fluid. Blanket statements apply to nothing. I seek the advice of experts when sometimes, common sense should prevail.

    No doubt I’ve gleaned a world of information from others who have made it their life’s work to observe and study animals – I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but I’ve also learned that it’s important to think for one’s self and learn to trust what you know is true.

    • Beth – we are all guilty (at least most of us I’m sure) of following one school of training or another while we figure things out. I used to use compulsion training, including (gasp!) alpha rolls! When I first started training dogs, that was all the rage and the person I worked with was very effective. That’s what he did, so that’s what I did. Fortunately I have learned better ways since!

      I have not read any further in the Culture Clash as I’m currently distracted by another book – the Wolf in the Parlor – which I am quite enjoying (will write my thoughts on that one once I’m done). But with respect to the theories presented in Culture Clash, I find it amazing that they assume so little thinking ability in dogs, and animals in general. The training theory presented is based on the Bailey’s research, and much of it was developed on dolphins. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t dolphins potentially MORE intelligent that we are? They are at least as smart. If we can think in more complex ways, so can dolphins. That the training methods work, as I said in this post, I think is more testament to their ability to transmit a message, to help with communication. Since we pretty much suck at communicating with our dogs, we need to break our messages down into little bits and string them together. The better we communicate with our dogs, the faster and easier this process. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn other ways though. Yeesh!

      As for using some compulsion, I think it is all about finding balance. I use compulsion when training on sheep. A keen dog starts on a long-line and may get yanked off its feet if it gets out of hand on stock. It might even get whacked with a stock stick if it’s harming a ewe and you weren’t quick enough to prevent it (which sometimes you simply aren’t). In this case, instinct is very strong and I am resigning myself to the likelihood that some compulsion is necessary to help curb that instinct, even with the best of trainers.

      When you are dealing with your dogs’ fears, that is instinct as well, and causes their “lizard brain” to take over, just like a panicking person would behave. I can see that compulsion may be helpful. Just last night I compelled Kess to sit with me during fireworks. She wanted to run away so I wrapped my arms around her and held her put until she settled and went to sleep. Crates, collars and leashes are all forms of compulsion. They do have their roles in helping dogs live safely in our society.

      Like you said, we learn from others, but should also have faith in our own ability to know and help our dogs. That is not easy in this world of so-called experts!

  2. Also interesting to note is that there have been a few mishaps at Seaworld involving killer whales who “misbehaved” with some pretty dramatic and unpleasant results during shows. I assume, like dolphins, that they were clicker trained.

    (I’m not speaking of a recent event in which the whale attacked the trainer while she was in the tank with him).

    This clearly illustrates that no person or training method can ever be guaranteed to control a thinking and feeling being.

    I don’t know much to speak of about learning theory, but one thing my trainer shared with me is that learning does not occur in a linear fashion. Nobody just keeps getting better and better ad infinitum without some backsliding.

    Learning that backsliding is a given, it makes getting through it much easier. “What did I do wrong??!!” becomes largely a thing of the past – human frustration level decreases, canine ability to work through it in a less stressful way increases and everybody is a lot happier ;-)

  3. The ‘backsliding’ is definitely a regular and interesting phenomenon. I’m not sure why it happens, but I see it regularly as well. Perhaps they are testing their understanding? I notice that my guys will work on a shaping exercise until they get the behaviour I want correctly two or three times in a row. Just when you think they get it, they do something completely different. I really think they are testing – did I really want that last behaviour? They’ll go back to it shortly if nothing else elicits a reward.

    As for learning theory, there’s an interesting little video on some “new” ideas about what motivates us (humans) that I’m going to post in the body of this blog in a minute.

  4. [...] on Learning Posted on July 17, 2010 by shapingchaos Further to this post on learning theory, here’s a little video I recently came across that offers some [...]

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