Sunday, October 10, 2010

Degree Of Difficulty

This is one of my favorite pictures, Cali, a 16 month old Labrador Retriever, winning the Best Trick Contest at Bark For Life this past June.  I'm sure Cali and Judy had practiced this trick (crawling)  MANY times prior to the contest.   In the early stages of training Judy would Click/Treat the smallest pieces of the behavior, an elbow bent, a small crouch, the slightest movement forward, etc.  Once the behavior was taking shape, Judy gave it a name, CRAWL, and continued to reinforce Cali for correct responses.  From there they practiced in a variety of locations so training would generalize.  When Judy was able to cue Cali to CRAWL in multiple locations she was on her way to having a nice solid behavior.  The day of the contest was the ultimate challenge for Cali, responding to a cue in a strange place, in front of  cheering strangers and with many dogs nearby distracting her.  She performed her CRAWL like a champ and walked away with the Blue Ribbon!

Last week I was talking with a friend about the proper use of Food Rewards in training, when to treat, when to fade out the treats, what comes after the treats, etc.  I think many people become confused about the proper use of using food rewards in training.  There are 4 simple rules to clicker training:

1. Get the Behavior through shaping and capturing
2. Reinforce it steadily, lots of Clicks and Treats,  so that it increases in frequency
3. When it’s offered regularly and with ease, ADD A CUE
4. When the behavior is well trained, fade the use of the Clicker and treats.

It sounds so simple doesn't it, but for the average dog handler it's complicated.  In the early stages of training we are using continuous reinforcement, LOTS of Clicks and Treats to strengthen behaviors.    We want to teach Fido to SIT in a variety of environments, at home, at the park, at the Vet, in Class, when he's excited and when he would rather be doing something else.    When progress is being made we then want to start fading out the Clicker and Treats.  This is where it gets tricky!!  A dog may have a wonderful SIT at home but at the Park he seems to have forgotten all his training.   The handler is frustrated because at home they have already faded the Clicker and Treats for SITS but Fido still needs help when working in public.  This is where I use the Degree of Difficulty program.   I start by assessing my dogs current level of training to determine which behaviors are fluent.  For example, Fido has a great Sit at home and in Class, but when we go to the Vet or the Park he does not respond to the Sit cue.  It's safe to say that Fido needs more practice working in areas with high levels of distraction.  When he is at home or in class he is comfortable and relaxed, but when he goes to strange places the Degree of Difficulty increases, therefore making it harder for him to perform the cued behavior.  He may no longer need Clicks and Treats for SIT at home but he does still need reinforcement for SITS in other locations.  When the Degree of Difficulty increases those are times when reinforcement is still needed.  As the dog gets more practice in multiple environments and situations the Degree of Difficulty will decrease and allow you to fade the Clicker and Treats completely.

It's important to look at your dogs entire training program and break it down into pieces, it gives you a better gauge of your dogs level of training.  My dogs have "Piece of Cake" behaviors, this means it's a no brainer for Faye to Sit, Down, Come, Stay and much more when we are at home or in an environment she has had alot of exposure to.  It is VERY difficult for  her to perform at this same level in a strange environment or one that is full of distractions.  While I may fade the clicker at home I will still use it in other environments until each skill is fluent..   When a dog has become fluent in a skill it's time to replace the Click and Treat with a life reward such at verbal praise, petting, toys, rides in the car, walks, etc.  A Life Reward is something your dog enjoys and finds rewarding.   We will also make the dog work harder by asking for multiple behaviors for a single Click and Treat.  When using this technique it's best to chain together a few beahviors that your dogs knows only Clicking and Treating the last behavior cued.

It is important to note that there is not a 'one size fits all' approach to training, each dog learns at their own pace.  We must also take into account the amount of time we have spent working with our dog and keep our expectations reasonable.   If you only spend a few minutes each week training your dog, don't expect them to perform like a champ.   I often hear people complain that their dog 'should know this stuff, after all we took a class'.   It's not the class that teaches a dog, it's the handler, so practice is important.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Puppies As Gifts For Children, Things To Consider.

It's that time of year........the Holidays are approaching and people are thinking about giving a puppy as a gift.    I've already received a few phone calls and emails from families wanting to surprise their children with a Christmas Puppy.    There are so many things to consider when adding a puppy to your family. 

Do you have time for a puppy?

Puppies are cute and cuddly and they need ALOT of time and attention.  Puppies need someone to care for them 24/7 the first few weeks as they settle into their new home and to establish a housebreaking routine.  You will need to get up with them at night for bathroom breaks until their are able to sleep through the night, this varies by breed and age so it could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.   They need to be fed on a regular schedule so having someone home or able to care for them mid day is very important the first few months.

A puppy needs to learn how to live in a human home so training is a top priority.  Do you have time to attend a puppy class?   Contrary to what people may tell you,  puppies do not train themselves, even the REALLY smart ones *grin*.   A young puppy needs to be walked and socialized on a daily basis, this is something that can not be overlooked or it will impact  their development.  A puppy will go through many developmental stages not entering adulthood until around 2 years of age.   During this time you will need to be diligent in supervising all interaction between your puppy and small children.    It's important that families look at their schedules and determine if they will have the time needed to properly raise and care for a puppy.   

Does a puppy fit into your budget?

Whether you purchase your puppy from a breeder, a rescue group or get one for free, there are many costs associated with raising a puppy.  You will have Veterinarian bills, food, fencing,  equipment, training and property loss.  Yes, you will loose things due to chewing, that just comes with the territory. 

Do children make good pet parents?

Most families get a dog for the children, assuming they will be actively involved in their care, but in reality we, the adults, are the primary caretakers for our puppies and dogs.    I have yet to hear of any 3 or 4 year old child waking up at night to take their puppy outside to go to the bathroom.  I've seen few 5 year olds cleaning up poop out of the yard even though they vowed to do this and many other puppy related jobs.  As a professional trainer and mother of 3 I have alot of experience in this area.  I have great kids who love our dogs, but they are kids with busy lives.  They are also learning responsibility, emphasis on the LEARNING so the supervisory position falls on the parents.  Many a well meaning parent surprises their children with a puppy only to find out after a few weeks that the kids have very little interest in the day-to-day care of a puppy.

It's also important to remember that children typically have little if any understanding of animal behavior and find normal puppy behavior annoying and or scary.  A young puppy has razor sharp teeth much to the dismay of small children.  While we'd like to imagine our kids curled up cuddling with their puppy a more realistic picture is of the children crying when little Fido sinks his puppy teeth into their hands, grabs their hair, rips their clothing, etc.   A few days of this and most kids have little if any interest in interacting with their puppy.   This often results in the puppy being banished to their crate or receiving punishment for normal puppy behavior.

I often suggest that parents assess their childrens ability to care for a puppy based on the childs age and temperament.  I encourage parents to consider whether or not they would allow their 5, 6 or 7 year old child to babysit for another child.    I know puppies are not humans but they do require a responsible and competent caregiver, able to meet the needs of a living creature.   A caregiver needs to be patient, calm, a good leader and a problem solver.  It's doubtful that many children would meet these requirements, so they are going to need adult supervision and LOTS of it.

What is the role of the Trainer?

The role of a Trainer is to teach a family how to care for and train their puppy.  I try to incorporate all family members into the process but the majority of work falls on the parents.  I receive many phone calls from frustrated parents who are surprised to find that their children want very little to do with training the new family puppy.  Training a puppy is time consuming and at times frustrating.   Sometimes families opt to send their puppy to live with a trainer who has offered to return to them a 'trained puppy'.   There are a few problems with this scenario.  It takes more than a few weeks to train a puppy, so a few weeks of Board and Train is just skimming the surface.  As trainers we are training you, the humans, to train your dog, removing you from the process is not going to help you develop the skills you need.   A skilled trainer can teach a young puppy basic obedience skills but quite often when the puppy returns home things unravel and the family it back to square one. 

How does a Family make the right choice?

It's safe to say that if you have children under 12 years of age the majority of the puppy rearing will be yours.
If you have the time and it's your hearts desire to raise a puppy then go for it, if not,  then consider an older dog.  The shelters are full of wonderful dogs looking for their forever homes.  You can also find breeders who have adult dogs that are being released from their breeding program.  These dogs are typically 12-18 months old and much easier to integrate in to a busy family or one with small children.

Basing your decision to get a dog on solid information can help make owning a dog an enriching experience that changes your life for the better.   Adding a dog to the family for all the wrong reasons or buying the wrong dog can lead to heartache.  Before you bring your dog or puppy home, let us help you determine if adding a dog/puppy to your family is right for you.