Ask Your Dog Questions – Overshadowing 2

How to ask your dog questions…overshadowing part two.

My last blog introduced the concept of overshadowing by offering a simple example to illustrate the point. For an explanation of the concept, you can read that blog here. But that basic understanding doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. Many unusual variations exist and can interfere with training.

To recap, animals are more likely to attach meaning to information that is more important and noticeable – the more “salient.” Abstract variations can be hard to spot. It’s a bit like the video of a gorilla dancing through a crowded room. Few people notice the gorilla until it’s pointed out. Once you see it, that gorilla is obvious.

Spatial properties are one such example. Dogs don’t just see and hear things. They also notice that cues are in specific locations. Where can be a very beneficial piece of information.

Hungry feral dogs hear and see small prey. Does it really matter if the squirrel is running through leaves? Over twigs? Makes chattering noises? Is digging? It’s more important that the dog pay attention to where the sound is coming. Knowing where allows them to find dinner.

Similarly, a dog is likely less concerned whether a scary sound is a bang, boom or grunt. Where allows the dog to run in the opposite direction – to safety. Where can be a matter of life or death.

Researchers have designed elegant experiments to test spatial factors. Dogs were taught to lift their right paw when they heard a metronome that was placed in front of them. They learned to lift their left paw when a buzzer sounded behind them.

Overshadowing experiment one

Then the researchers swapped the sounds. They wondered if the dog would lift the paw based on the type of sound, or the place from which it came from.

Overshadowing experiment

The dogs had not picked up on the type of sound.  They honed in on the location of the cue, not the sound quality. The full extent of the experiment was a bit more complex. The conclusion the researchers came to was this: Responses differentiated by location are most likely to come under control of the spatial features. (Dobrzecka, Szwejkowska, Konorski 1966)

Many dog training skills involve spatial components. Discrimination tasks where the dog chooses between things to the left, right or middle potentially fall into this category. If we’re not careful, the dog figures out that we move our hand just a little bit to the left, middle or right, giving the right answer by where our hand happens to be. It might seem that the dog has learned a complex task. In reality, they’re watching for a hint we might not even realize we are giving.

Sports dogs that learn to turn left or right are doing a skill with spatial features. If you’re not hyper vigilant in how you train, the dog might be paying attention to where you’re standing, not what you’re saying or doing.

Left and right paw is a skill many pet owners teach. Most dogs don’t actually connect the words to the skill. They learn, “Give the paw that is closest to the extended hand.” Or as you’ll see in the video blow, a foot can cue the behaviour.  The foot swaps for the hand just like the metronome and buzzer swapped. Where matters more than what.

Left and right paw is still a cute trick. Owners can effectively wipe their dog’s paws without polishing this skill. If you don’t mind issues with the cue, it does not matter.

It does start to matter if a family does not like it when their dog swats and scratches their arms – arms that are reaching out to scratch the dog’s chest. It matters if you’re the type of person who becomes frustrated or annoyed when the dog is not doing what you think they ought to.  If you well up with irritation, it matters.  It most certainly matters if the consequence for pawing at the wrong time results in punishment or discipline. This is a predictable effect. It is a dog doing exactly what they have been taught to do. It is not a stubborn dog.  It isn’t the dog’s fault or error.

There are three choices on the table. Don’t teach behaviours that might become obnoxious if you have no intention of polishing them. The second option is to accept what you have taught, happily. The third option is to finish the behaviour. That includes assessing and incorporating the correct cue.

How can we know if location is overshadowing other cues? Ask the dog. Manipulate little details and see how the dog responds. In the following video, I work through variations of Karma’s paw shake behaviour to see how she’s interpreting the lessons. It also shows how important where is to Karma, more than any other feature of the cue.  If you want to see spatial elements overshadowing, click right here to watch footage of it!

We cannot ask our dogs to repeat information. We can listen with our eyes and test assumptions. Based on the dog’s response, we can see if they heard us clearly. Learning about factors such as overshadowing, well that allows us to become better at knowing what to ask.  More importantly, it eliminates stress that doesn’t need to be present in our training because the dog is not being defiant, stubborn or anything malicious at all.  They’re just being normal.

Reading research – 8 classic red flags

Ten years ago, few trainers had access to research studies.  These days with Google University, we have moved into the era of research wars.  It is a battle of quantity, novelty and link littering.  Unfortunately, few seem to be reading past the abstract soundbites to see if the study in question is any good.  Even more problematic are lure of pop psychology magazines with sexy titles, articles that probably misinform more than educate.

Every professor and textbook on the subject of research sends a consistent message.  Read research with a critical mind.  Not all studies are well executed.  Peer reviewed academic papers are no exception.  Sometimes journals will publish research with poor design to inspire further research.  Looking at study design is scientific, not sacrilegious.

As readers of studies, we can take steps to improve our research reading abilities.  We can face our own biases directly.    Do we militantly tear apart research that goes against our point of view, while offering leniency to findings that feel warm and fuzzy?  More importantly, do we know how to read an analyze research?

I won’t pretend to be a research expert.  Rather, over the next series of blogs I will be highlighting what I have learned from Experimental Psychology by Myers and Hansen.  It is a worthwhile investment for anyone wanting to flex his or her mental muscles.

One core concept of research is internal validity.  As the name implies, we need to assess if a study is valid on the inside.  External validity, by contrast, would look at whether results apply to “the real world.”  Lesson number one is that internal validity should not be sacrificed for external validity.  If a study is not valid on the inside, there is nothing of substance to apply to the “real world.”

Campbell identified eight “Classic Threats to Internal Validity.”  They apply to research involving experimentation.  This includes true experiments and quasi-experiments.  True experiments have strict parameters or rules.  Quasi-experiments are not bad, just different.  In both researchers manipulate a variable and then measure the effect it has on another variable.

IV isolation

For example, we might want to know if training method A is faster than training method B.  We divide a number of dogs into two groups and compare results of those two methods.  The type of training is the variable being manipulated.  We call this the independent variable (IV).  The goal of experimentation is to isolate the independent variable, to ensure that no other factor is interfering or confounding the results.

Revisiting our dog-training example, let’s say that group A tested on a Monday and group B tested on Tuesday.  If Monday was sunny and Tuesday was stormy, any claim that treatment A was better is highly suspect.  Stormy weather could have agitated the dogs in group B.  The independent variable was not adequately isolated.  The study would not have internal validity.

The following itemizes Campbell’s Classic Threats to Internal Validity and provides examples.  One step we can take toward understanding research is to understand how these threaten validity.

Our thunderstorm example above is a history threat.  Dogs in group B had a shared history during the experiment that differed from dogs in group A.  Training methods varied.  However, so did weather.  No one can say for sure which training method was faster because the weather interfered.  History threats can be subtle.  Another example would be if one group receives an orientation while the other does not.  Orientation can prime one group, giving them a head start.  It would also be a history threat.

Maturation threat reflects internal changes.  An obvious example might be age.  Behaviour can change as puppies mature.  Maturation can also mean the maturation of knowledge.  Students handling dogs during experiments will have gained knowledge throughout the term. It would not be wise to test group A with new students and group B at the end of term.  Increased knowledge by the end of term can mean that students guess the hypothesis or influence results.

Subjects rarely get the same test results when re-tested.  Practice leads to improvement, even without treatment of any kind.  Suppose we take a group of anxious dogs and test their heart rate.  Heart rates can drop simply because the dog habituates and becomes more comfortable.  A second round of testing should show habituation.  It is not enough to ask if a dog improved, we need to know if the dog improved more so than dogs that did not receive any treatment.  Otherwise, we have a testing threat.

Measuring results is not without potential pitfalls.  Instrumentation threats involve data collection problems.  Equipment can fail or be unreliable.  Scales used to score results need to be set correctly.  Assume we want to know if dogs become anxious at the dog park.  Imagine if the measurement options are:  highly anxious; moderately anxious; mildly anxious and fully relaxed.  Answers obviously will be weighted toward the “anxious” side of the scale.  Unless a dog is fully relaxed, it is by default labelled as anxious. Had moderately relaxed and slightly relaxed been offered as choices, an entirely different picture may have emerged.

Random selection between groups is important.  This process helps balance the characteristics between groups.  When groups are not random by design or chance, this is a selection threat.  Assume that wrandom balancinge want to know which training technique obtains a faster recall.  Group A dogs are mostly short hounds and toy breeds.  Group B has mostly large dogs with a smattering of Border Collies and Whippets.  Under those conditions, we could not claim that group B training produced faster recalls.  To avoid accidental selection threats, random selection and balancing offers an even comparison between groups.  Researcher choice is not random.

Mortality should be listed in an experiment.  It is the dropout rate.  When large numbers drop out of an experiment, it’s a red flag.  According to the text, “Often it means that the treatment is frightening, painful, or distressing.  If the dropout rate is very high, it can mean that the treatment is sufficiently obnoxious that typical subjects would choose to leave, and the ones who remain could be unusual in some respect.”  Assume we are testing a protocol to help reactive dogs.  Many drop out.  Those who remain seem to improve.  The obvious question is whether those who left were distressed or deteriorated so much so they did not return.  That is critical information.

The seventh threat comes with a big word:  Statistical Regression.  Extreme test results are unreliable.  Think back to grade school I.Q. tests.  Scoring low could mean you had the flu.  If an experiment uses subjects with extreme characteristics, we can expect some of that to level out on its own.  Testing a new anxiety treatment on highly anxious dogs can appear to work.  That result looks similar to statistical regression.  As with a testing threat, it is not enough to ask if an animal improved.  We need to ensure that improvement happened because of the treatment.

Finally, we come to selection interaction threats.  It’s the one-two punch of threats.  It happens when a selection threat combines with another threat.  Returning to our experiment that asks which dog training method is faster, suppose we non-randomly select dogs from two training schools.  Immediately, that creates a selection threat.  Now suppose school A has a trick team.  Students at this school are motivated to join the team.  The second training school does not offer tricks sessions.  That creates a history threat.  Trick dogs would have a wide array of skills to draw on – to guess the right answer instead of learning it via the training method tested.  Selection threat combines in this case with a history threat to create one hot mess.

classic threats to validity copy

Campbell’s Classic Threats are the tip of the iceberg in terms of red flags.  It can make it seem no research can hold up to its standard.  Following a defined process for evaluating research is a far sight better than pointing to number of subjects and chanting “the n value is too low.”  It may not be possible to control for every bump in the road.  Experimental Psychology states, “Control as many variables as possible.  If a variable can be held constant in an experiment, it makes sense to do so even when any impact of that variable on the results may be doubtful.”

Knowing the threats to internal validity are only useful if you start using them to read studies more carefully.  It might be tempting to annihilate an experiment you dislike.  Perhaps a more interesting exercise would be review an experiment you love and have shared.  Challenge your bias.  Look at the design and the various threats to internal validity.  Did you find any?

(Part 2, 3 and more….about those n values, non-experimental research and more.)

 

 

Shock Collars are so NOT like T.E.N.S.

I had a more practical blog lined up.  Humor me, as we look at one more expression.  This one keeps coming across my news feed and it’s interesting.  Some trainers claim that, “Shock collars are like T.E.N.S. machines.”

I have used a T.E.N.S. machine many times under the guidance of various therapists.  For those unfamiliar with this treatment, mild electric current flows to pads secured to the patient’s skin.  It causes muscles to contract.  Dr. Ho’s Pain Therapy System seen on infomercials is a T.E.N.S. machine.

Here is one of the machines that I use on a regular basis.  At the bottom are two dials for “intensity.”  There are two intensity dials because the machine regulates the left and right pads separately.

tens

Comfort levels change between individuals.  They also change from moment to moment for the same person.  Intensity levels vary from one area of the body to another, hence the two dials.  There is no “consistent” setting.

If you asked a patient using a T.E.N.S. “Are you okay?” the answer should be “Yes.”  Discomfort results in a reduction in intensity.  If asked, “Do you want me to turn it off?” the answer should be, “No.”  Stimulation should be neutral or pleasant.

With shock collars, it is this underlying premise that is fundamentally different.  Bark collars shock dogs to suppress barking.  Barking reduces because the dog does not like the shock.  If the shock were neutral, nothing would change.  If it were pleasurable like a T.E.N.S. machine, barking would increase.  Barking would increase because the dog would be learning that barking leads to massages.

The same goes for electronic training collars used as negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is like the game “Uncle.”  Children pinch one another.  They keep pinching until the other child says, “Uncle.”  The behaviour of saying uncle leads to cessation of pinching or relief.  Similarly, dogs turn the shock off by obeying a command.  Reinforcement is the cessation of the electronic stimulation – relief.  Dogs that respond quickly can “beat the buzzer”, avoiding shock altogether.

“Pleasant” shock, under the level of aversiveness wouldn’t be effective here either.  Ask a dog, “Do you want the electrical current to stop?”  The answer needs to be, “yes” or the collar will not work as designed.

Both may involve electrical current but the intensity is on a gradient.  Many things are on gradients.  Music is nice, unless it is too loud.  Massage feels good, unless Olga the Horrible is hurting you.  (My apologies to anyone named Olga.  Olga was the name of the massage therapist who hurt me.)  Light helps us see unless it is glaring.  Flowers smell pretty unless it is an overdose of noxious perfume.  Cool water makes a refreshing swim.  Cold water is icy and painful.  Food is usually fabulous, unless you have eaten excessively and feel nauseated.

No one thing fits neatly into a naughty or nice category.  Dogs decide what they find pleasant, neutral and aversive.  We infer how the dog feels by observing their change in behaviour.

I would have gladly paid Olga the Horrible to stop the massage.  Massage therapist Mike was different.  He had magic hands.  I would pay money for longer massages.  Olga’s massages were aversive.  Brad’s were appetitive.  I was not screaming and thrashing in pain with Olga.  I just wanted it to stop and it changed my behaviour.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the dog’s attitude that will tell you if the training is aversive.  It is the dog’s responses.

There is a second key difference between these two devices.  Shock collars are training.  With T.E.N.S., the goal is long-term if not permanent pain elimination.  It is not a teaching tool.

Olga may have been brutal, but her intent was to offer long-term relief.  Magic Hands Mike offered the same goal under threshold.  Suzy who does scalp massages at the hair salon….she just gives nice feeling massages.  Training cannot be compared to these scenarios.

In training, the trainer creates the plan with the goal of creating a change in behaviour.  We determine which behaviour we want to teach.  Therapies for pain relief have no skills development.  Olga never taught me to dance a jig in return for pain relief.  She did not use my discomfort as a tool.

I never went back to Olga.  I had the choice to leave.  More importantly, I had a choice to never return.  I could refuse to participate.  Our dogs do not have that choice during training because repetition is part of the gig.  Once the aversive ceases, the aversive is back in play for more training.  We can’t see all the differences unless we look at the specifics of how each of these work.

Olga vs Mike

If you are ready to jump in and say, “You don’t need batteries to use aversives,” then you won’t get any argument from me.  There are many forms of aversives in dog training.  Some are easier to swallow than others.  You do not need batteries to use aversives.

But, let me broaden the statement.  Using aversives in dog training is not the same as using a T.E.N.S. machine.  It’s not even close.  It does not matter if the aversive is added to the dog, the dog is added to an aversive scenario or whether we use a dog’s discomfort for our training purposes.  Using the aversive is trainer’s choice.  If the dog is put into a position where they want to leave, they have been put between a rock and a hard place.  It’s not free will.  The trainer has free will.

Training paradigms are not the same as T.E.N.S. machines.  In dog training, the choices to use an aversive are ours and ours alone.

Mama Dogs Don’t Use Treats…..

Many people seem enamoured with the idea that we should emulate what dogs do in the wild.  “Mama dogs don’t give treats in the wild,” is one of the more common expressions.  This one carries quite a punch.  People have a natural affinity for natural.

Expressions, analogies, metaphors and idioms can serve various purposes.  They can help explain, illustrate and educate.  At their best, they simplify a complex topic.  They are also used to influence and to persuade.  The “mama dog” line usually falls into the persuade category.  It’s used to convince owners that they should stop using treats and start using corrections – because “that’s what mama dogs do.”

An expression is only valid if it holds up under scrutiny.  Look for holes.  This one is as holey as Swiss cheese.

Truth is, mama dogs don’t use shock collars, choke collars, say “tsssk” or “eh eh eh” either.  Switching from “unnatural” food to leash corrections and shock collars is moving from one unnatural thing to another unnatural thing.

No training technique is “natural” because obedience is not natural.  Nature is cruel.  Emulating nature is to aspire to a system of survive or die.  Find food or die.  Avoid predators or die.  Find shelter or die.  Be fearful enough to avoid moving cars or die.  Nature is more than cruel, it’s damn cruel.  Emulating nature is emulating a life of peril.

Female dogs birth, feed and wean puppies.  Male dogs offer little to no paternal care.  They’re promiscuous, breeding with multiple females.  If they were human, we would call them cheating deadbeat dads.  Pups quickly mature and become pregnant as early as five months of age.   Emulating natural dog care would be called neglect in most modern human cultures.  Let me repeat, nature is cruel.

natural is abuse

Dogs might not use food to teach obedience, but all animals learn with food, even in the wild.  Let’s look at a couple examples.

Imagine it’s garbage day.  After much pawing and fussing, the dog manages to open the latch on a garbage bin.  After opening the container, the dog finds food inside.  Obtaining food reinforces the dog’s biting and pawing behaviours.  With repetition the dog becomes proficient at latch opening behaviour.  Food continues to reinforce latch opening behaviour.  It’s a behaviour that my Kip has taught himself with significant proficiency.

Let’s say that the dog hears people as they drag the bins to the curb.  The banging and clanging scares the dog.  As the street becomes quiet, the dog notices streets lined with food refuse filled bins.  With repetition, the dog learns that the noise predicts a boatload of food.  An association forms between the noise and the food in the garbage bins.  The banging and clanging is no longer scary.  It’s straight forward classical counterconditioning.

The ability to find, obtain and retain food is a necessary skill.  Learning that certain people, places and things predict food – lead us to more food.  Reinforcement with food and classical conditioning are the ways all animals learn whether in the wild or in a home.  Food is as real world as it gets.  Food is really darn functional.

There is no segregation or difference between food and real life reinforcements.  Food is a real life reinforcement.  We are born with a need, desire and love of food.  It keeps us alive.  Food is nourishing, good and pleasurable – or at least it should be.  We’re not feeding cupcakes to dogs.  It’s a bit of meat or cheese – a yummy part of a balanced diet if offered with a dose of common sense.

Despite a dog’s need and love of food, people become worried.  “When can we wean off the food?”  Technically, dogs wean off food when they’re dead.  That is also natural.  Perhaps we should ask instead, “When will you wean off that toy?  When will you wean off massage?  When will you wean your dog off that warning signal that says a correction is possible?  When are you going to wean off that prong collar?”  No one seems too concerned about weaning away from anything BUT food.  It’s an interesting commentary on how we view food.

wean from treats

If “natural” is important to you when choosing a training technique, food is very much a natural way of learning.  It’s one things that lends itself exceptionally well toward positive reinforcement and classical counterconditioning.  Food is a renewable reinforcement.  By that I mean that tomorrow the dog will want to eat again, and the next day and the next day.  Dogs are scavengers.  They’ll eat even when they have just eaten.  There is no need to starve dogs in order to use food.  They’ll eat garbage.  Although I’d suggest using the less natural, “dog treat” instead of rotting compost for training.  Be sure to balance their caloric intake with other unnatural things – on leash walks, agility sessions, dog sports and activities for exercise.

The takeaway for owners is that this industry is full of little expressions and idioms.  They’re designed to persuade and influence you one way or another.  It’s not necessarily the most honest way of presenting information.  A long-winded narrative that illustrates the ugly of living in the wild might not be pleasant to read.  It is bluntly honest about what natural, function and “in the wild” means.

It’s one thing to seek out elements of an animal’s natural habitat that bring it joy or increase welfare.  Give dogs bones.  They love to chew.  Let them stop and sniff some pee mail occasionally.  It’s an entirely different thing to look for harsh live or die examples to justify adding more adversity into a dog’s life so we can call it training under the guise of it being natural.

New Isn’t Better. Better is Better.

Protocols created by pet professionals have been around for as long as I can remember. By protocol, I mean a system or recipe that provides a step-by-step instructional guide, presented as something that works better or differently than generally accepted practices described in standardized scientific terms.

I have used protocols in the past and I think the desire to find that shiny, new, better protocol comes from a passionate desire to help more dogs. No matter how good we are as trainers, there is that client that struggles. We want to help.

Thus is born the argument that we need more tools in the training toolbox. Don’t get me wrong, I am completely in favour of better and I am in favour of learning about new things. New does not mean better. New does not mean it will stand the test of time. New does not mean that it belongs in my training toolbox.  Perhaps it belongs in my “interesting new factoid” box.  Evidence supporting some cognitive ability in dogs does not mean it will successful translate into something useful for dog training. Not even all of Skinner’s work held up upon review. That is okay. That is how science works.

This is why the idea that “there is a study” is not sufficient to say that new is better. It is like those people who replaced their butter consumption with margarine. Trans fat is not better even if it was newer than butter.

New

Will a specific study or protocol hold up over time? I do not know. I only know that before me is a human being, a client with a dog. It is my job to:

  • Choose a strategy that has evidence of being effective.
  • Ascertain that the strategy is suitable for that particular problem.
  • Understand, mitigate, avoid and warn about risks and costs.
  • Factor in the client’s capabilities and safety measures.

That is a tall order to fill. Human psychology has wrestled with this problem. It resulted in a series of task reports by Chambless and Ollendick on evidence based practice. It recognizes that new treatments may become available, and we need to balance the potential for new effective treatments with the scientific evidence at hand. As a result, many psychological associations list ratings of treatment options.

For example, the Society of Clinical Psychology lists the treatments for panic disorders as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy NEW (strong research support)
  • Applied Relaxation (modest research support)
  • Psychoanalytic Treatment (modest research support/controversial)

The terms “strong research” and “modest research” reflects specific criteria that explains the amount and type of research supporting that treatment.   An untested treatment plan may or may not work. Its omission from the list is an honest way of communicating that we just do not know.

Should controversy exist, this is also noted, creating a transparent system.  Reviewing, revisiting and questioning evidence does not constitute a personal attack. As the task force explains:

“Experts are not infallible. All humans are prone to errors and biases. Some of these stem from cognitive strategies and heuristics that are generally adaptive and efficient. Others stem from emotional reactions, which generally guide adaptive behavior as well but can also lead to biased or motivated reasoning.”

Criteria leading to a “strong research support” (well-established) designation are stringent. According to the Chambless and Ollendick’s criteria:


I – At least two good between group design experiments demonstrating efficacy in one or more of the following ways:

A Superior (statistically significantly so) to pill or psychological placebo or to another treatment.

B Equivalent to an already established treatment in experiments with adequate sample sizes.

OR

II – A large series of single case design experiments (N>9) demonstrating efficacy. These experiments must have:
A Used good experimental designs and
B Compared the intervention to another treatment as in IA.

Further Criteria for both I and II

III Experiments must be conducted with treatment manuals.
IV Characteristics of the client samples must be clearly specified.
V Effects must have been demonstrated by at least two different investigators or investigating teams.

(Bolded areas by myself to highlight the many requirements.)


You do not need to be a researcher in order to see that this is well beyond, “There is a new study – here is my new protocol.” Well established treatments have multiple, reputable studies with multiple researchers and teams that review and debate the merits of that evidence..  Even those listed as “modest research support” go well beyond one study and an idea.

How do we choose what is the best therapy for a particular client?  The task force suggests,

“…evidence should be considered in formulating a treatment plan, and a cogent rationale should be articulated for any course of treatment recommended.”

In dog training circles, protocols are marketed differently than the above.  Clients and trainers alike are told that we, “need more tools, or dogs will die.”  This insinuates that nothing but more protocols can save lives, overlooking that this is not the issue at hand.  The choice of options is not between new protocols and death. Our choice lies between therapies with a strong body of evidence and others with little to none.

More choices and more protocols create an ethical dilemma. We do not know if shiny, new things are better than placebo, nor do we know if they carry risks. We are working without the safety net that testing provides.

We also create an opportunity cost. We abandon the well-established treatments in favour of the unknown. There is a finite amount of time, money and resources in a client’s life.  Attention to the new takes time and attention away from a strategy that has a strong track record of working.

Even if we could mash methods and offer multiple strategies, it is unlikely that anyone has tested or reviewed if methods are complimentary. Do the effects of our shiny, new protocol trigger blocking effects in the tried and true? Without testing, this presents yet another concerning unknown. It is entirely possible that we are setting the client up to fail.

Out of the plethora of shiny new protocols, perhaps some will stand the test of time.  We remain in the dark until rigorous testing happens.

We, as dog trainers, have no right to override or skip testing or review. Our experiences and anecdotes are not superior to the tenents of scientific processes. Nothing gives us the right to let our ego grow to the point where we believe we can create a protocol – skip testing – sell it to clients at will – without disclosure – while taking payment for that service.

Until shiny, new studies and protocols become tested and reliable, we have choices to make for the individual client before us. If we choose to go the route of shiny and new, then at the very least clients deserve to know that they are signing up for something experimental. They also have a right to know that a supported treatment is available to them elsewhere.

new and untested

To be quite blunt, while we dabble in the new and untested, we are asking our clients to be our guinea pigs.

New does not mean better. Better is better. We will know we have better when we have proof that it’s better.  In the meantime, perhaps our focus is better served at becoming better at that which already meets “well established” treatment guidelines.

Two Tips to Undo Pushy Tricks You Wish You Had Not Taught

My dog Karma has a fun trick.  If I hold out my hands and say, “Hup!” she jumps up into my arms and I catch her.  After demonstrating this trick, I often do another variation.  I extend my arms and say, “I caught a fish this big.”

My gestures are the same, but my words are different.  Karma does not jump.  People quickly see that her trick necessitates control.  I do not want her leaping into some poor unsuspecting person’s face as they gesticulate wildly.

Most families aren’t teaching their dogs to jump up into their arms.  Most do teach obnoxious tricks such as speak and shake a paw.  Cute in a young puppy, they become irritating when not controlled.  When dogs use their paws like battering rams, it’s a trick people regret.  It’s all fun and games until Grandma is bleeding.

Few people know how to finish behaviour – to place them under stimulus control.  This means that the dog should do behaviour ONLY if asked.

If you have already created a monster, it’s not too late to fix it.

Begin by reviewing the trick in question.  In the video below, I have used shake a paw as our example.  I personally do not like being accosted by a dog’s paw.  Karma needs to offer her right paw, and she needs to do so gently.  Fix these types of problems at this stage of the training.

Next, add the command.  In training, we often say cue instead of command because the word command can come across as bit too “dictator”.  Essentially, we are talking one and the same.  Think very carefully, about what your cue should be.  For Karma’s paw shake, I want her to respond to the word, “right.”

Finally, start drilling for stimulus control.  Present a random selection of cues to the dog that are similar to the one you have chosen.  Mix these with the actual cue.  In the example, sometimes I offer Karma my hand, but fail to say the word, “right.”

Here is big trick number one.  The dog has TWO opportunities to earn reinforcement.  It is a lot like red and green light.

Stimulus Control red light green light
“Right” = shake a paw.
No “right” cue = no paw.

Both of these are correct.  Reinforce both.  If we fail to acknowledge, mark and pay the self-control, the “red light”, there is no incentive for the dog to hold back.  Cookies are eventually earned as long as the dog keeps swatting their paw.

If we do reinforce the dog for holding back, they can earn double the number of cookies.  That is some serious incentive and motivation.  Pay all right responses.

As for the second big tip – extinction sucks.  Extinction is when we stop giving treats for a behaviour with a history of being paid.  This results in a frustrated dog.  The problem typically becomes worse before it gets better.  That is called an extinction burst.  The dog, frustrated at the lack of reinforcement tries harder.

Extinction bursts are not a pleasant way for dogs to learn.  Families with pets can also become frustrated at the escalation of problem behaviour.  Standing still, holding out your arm for pummeling is not pleasant for anyone.

Reduce extinction bursts by phasing in the red light portion of the exercise.  Do not offer your arm directly to the dog.  Try holding it off to the side at first.  The dog may not recognize it as a sign for shake a paw.  This means they might ignore it.  You can get in some quick and dirty reinforcements for ignoring your outstretched hand.

Gradually, bring your hand closer.  There will likely be a few incorrect responses.  With a strong reinforcement history on both red light and green light scenarios, extinction bursts become extinction hiccoughs.

The following video details Karma’s progression through the steps.  You’ll see her pausing and sorting out the “rules” of the game.

As silly as a trick may be, finishing one little trick to completion builds dog training skills.  If you can build stimulus control for shake a paw, you can apply this skill toward many behaviours your dog ought to know.

Which sort of skills might benefit from stimulus control?  You decide.

Thyroid on Trial

Love this article on science and which types of studies hold more weight than others.

For all the people following the aggression and thyroid issue…must read as it talks about the results of a controlled study, with a thumbs up for researchers who published results that were probably not what they expected.

Thyroid on Trial.