Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An open letter to Buck Brannaman

In the interests of greater harmony...
Like many who dwell outside the rarefied world of horses and horsepeople, I only recently became acquainted with Buck Brannaman's life and work through the beautiful documentary film Buck that was released last year and is now available on DVD. Buck gave a Q&A at the showing I attended in Portland early in the summer, and made good in person on the charisma so evident on film. It struck me immediately how much his training approach had in common with that of the clicker/marker trainers I most admired, and despite my great ignorance about horses I knew it would be worth my while to attend one of his clinics as a spectator. In late October, I traveled up to Spanaway, Washington with a firm cushion and a warm blanket and planted myself in the bleachers of the arena where Buck taught three separate horsemanship classes every day for four days. (He followed with two more for three days; his dedication and stamina are remarkable.)

I spent most of three days happily lapping up just about everything he had to say and to show about training horses, though I couldn't help remarking that he was somewhat less effective as a trainer of people. But at the end of his second session on that third day, one of his students asked what he thought of clicker training, and he could not have been more contemptuous or less measured in his response. He said he found it worthless at best, exploitative at worst. Good for nothing more than tricks. He recounted a recent encounter with a dangerously spooked steer and joked that a clicker trainer "couldn't click fast enough" to handle such a situation.

Well, that got me riled. And when I'm riled I write. A few days after returning home from Buck's clinic, I sent him an eight-page letter detailing all the reasons I was convinced that a) he was already a "clicker trainer" and b) he could be a better one. I would probably not post it here if I had heard back from him, and I am hesitant to do it now, but I don't know whether he's still trashing the people with whom he should be making common cause, and I'd love to jump start the dialogue that might bring us closer to mutual understanding. As I think I make clear in the letter, I admire Buck a great deal, but I think in this instance he's using his influence to real potential harm. I also realized that this letter represented my own most focused attempt to articulate the power and promise of clicker/marker training. (I regret that my summary of its history contained a couple of significant inaccuracies. I have let them stand here in the interests of fair representation of my own fallibility, but apologies are due to the memory of Keller Breland.) Anyway, here it is:

November 4, 2011

Dear Buck,

First and foremost, I want to thank you. I attended one of your recent clinics in Spanaway as a first-time spectator. Even from that remove, I learned more than I could have hoped, and I left powerfully inspired to put that learning into practice. I should say that I am not a horsewoman in either the casual or the proper sense of that term. I came to your clinic because I have a passion for clear communication between individual creatures who may not be of the same species, a passion I have so far exercised primarily as a writer and as a teacher of humans and dogs. I’ve spent about fifteen years teaching the first (high school, college, and adult students), only about two teaching the second (that is to say, only two with focused intent and the least little bit of efficacy). I guessed that I could learn a great deal from you in spite of the gap in our immediate interests, and I did.

One of the things that impressed me most during the clinic (and contributed immeasurably to your credibility) was your frequent reference to the limits of your own knowledge, your insistence that you still have and will always have more to learn. On a few occasions you expressed your well-founded disgust for people who get ahead of themselves, people who speak in tones of false authority on subjects about which they know next to nothing. (In my experience, next to nothing is often more dangerous than nothing at all when it comes to degrees of ignorance.) I would not have taken you for such a person, when you have generally been so careful to build your authority on a solid foundation from the ground up. So I was sorely disappointed and more than a little angered by your casual and insulting dismissal of clicker training in response to a student question on the third afternoon of the clinic. You made it clear from your comments that you know next to nothing about it, and yet you felt entitled to use the authority you have earned in other ways to trash the devoted work of people who might otherwise be your natural allies. You know only a caricature of clicker training, only the crudest sketch, and that’s the picture that may now persist indelibly in the minds of some of your students because you momentarily and uncharacteristically abdicated your responsibility as a teacher to know whereof you speak.

Imagine that someone who’d seen the film The Horse Whisperer considered himself competent to judge your methods and principles, to get on his mike and tell an arena full of people, “Oh that Buck Brannaman, what a load of mumbo jumbo. If you want to whisper to your horse, you go right ahead, but if you actually want to get something done...” Hell, you probably don’t have to imagine it. I’d bet you’ve heard it many a time, and I’d bet it pissed you off every time. I’d further bet that you’d hate to expose yourself for the same kind of fool, so it pains me to be the one to tell you that your pants were on the ground the other afternoon. But I’m hoping that this is what we both might call a teachable moment. I hope I can teach you enough in a few pages about clicker training that the next time someone asks you a similar question you don’t get yourself caught in a cranial-anal inversion but maybe pause long enough to say, “You know, I need to learn more about that before I can really judge whether there might be something to it.”

The telegraphic leash

Keep a float in your line...
One of the Clicker Expo presentations that I found most interesting and valuable was given by Michele Pouliot on "The Right Touch." Michele is determined (hooray!) to reclaim the leash as a tool for training and communication rather than simply for management, and she's demonstrating more generally that there are ways to employ contact artfully, informatively, and positively. As I told her after her talk, I'd been quite literally feeling some of this stuff out for myself over the last six months or so, inspired in the main by Buck Brannaman's work with horses, by his emphasis on finding a "soft feel" and leaving a "float" in the rein, and by his further emphasis on the importance of developing sensitivity in the horse and the rider so as to make the rein a conduit of information in both directions. I thought there was no reason that a leash couldn't function similarly, and I'd found through trial and error that it very much could. (Of course, the idea that collar pressure -- like bit pressure -- can be communicative is hardly a new one, but the messages people have sent by leash have typically been blunt and unpleasant. The idea that light pressure might be converted from an aversive to a conditioned reinforcer is, I think, novel.)

Michele has been much less clumsy in her efforts, and she gave all of us at her talk a simple, clear, and efficient method for flipping our dogs' conception of pressure (and our own), from oppositional force to welcome invitation.** As she mentioned, there had been some trepidation on the part of the Expo organizers around her presentation of her process, given that it relies on negative reinforcement to get rolling, but I can say with absolute conviction that her method could have saved my dogs a great deal of annoyance if I'd been acquainted with it earlier. And even having muddled my way to a rough approximation of what she's doing with the leash, I am better able now to refine my techniques intelligently (and to expand them into similar work with hand to body contact). I can more easily move forward thanks not only to the clarity of her approach but also to the intellectual and moral affirmation I took from noting its overlap with my own nascent ideas. Out of respect for her care in presenting the specifics of her method, I'll wait to describe them here until I've had a chance to review her notes, but I think they should be disseminated widely, as I'm convinced that they have the potential to reduce the use of negative reinforcement significantly. As long as we use leashes primarily to contain rather than to communicate, and as long as we labor under the misconception that the signals we send each other across the line must necessarily be aversive, we miss a great opportunity to get in better touch with our dogs.

** It's probably no coincidence that Michele is a champion "freestyler," i.e., she dances (beautifully) with her dogs. Anyone who's done much partnered dancing can readily understand how this mode of training is analogous to "giving good weight," and can also guess how seamlessly it might integrate with other vital forms of kinesthetic awareness and communication.

Photo by George Grall.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I love you, dammit!!

I just spent the weekend in the company of a few hundred trainers and a smattering of scientists at the annual west coast Clicker Expo, organized by Karen Pryor and her skilled cohorts. My exhaustion last night spoke to the quality of the program and the liveliness of the other attendees -- it's good to be reminded in a training context of how much energy the brain consumes when it's fully engaged!

There were many ideas and provocations I encountered in the ballrooms and hallways of the Doubletree Hotel that I want to return to, things I'll need to gnaw on for a long time before I can digest them. What looks most temptingly chewy this morning, however, is a question that was posed to me by a fellow trainer yesterday morning. I had volunteered with a dozen or so other KPA graduates to offer a little coaching to interested parties (two sessions of twenty minutes apiece), with donated proceeds going a local charity. We worked in pairs, and it was unfortunately toward the end of our first session that our "client," whose dog was not with her, described how he would often growl when he lay on his bed and she approached and pet him. What should she do?

I really regret that our next client was waiting and we weren't able to give the question the attention it deserves, because it's loaded. Personally, emotionally, and theoretically. I didn't get any further than remarking that the dog was telling her something that she'd be wise to respect, which might have been a fine response if I'd had time to elaborate it, but was surely too brusque given the circumstances. My partner did better, noting that the dog was a terrier, asking whether the dog followed her hand when she withdrew (yes), and suggesting that the dog might be experiencing a conflict of intent: to roughhouse or to cuddle? But we had to leave it at that.

On the theoretical side, this presents as a relatively straightforward matter of strategic reinforcement, and I hope the woman with the terrier found her way later that morning to Ken Ramirez's excellent lecture, wherein he explored the promise and perils of working with secondary reinforcers, those things (not always tangible, sometimes experiential) that accrue value only by their association to other things that satisfy an animal's strong intrinsic needs (i.e. primary reinforcers). Is gentle touch a primary reinforcer? Considered broadly, for slow-developing, social mammals, it does appear to satisfy an intrinsic need, especially early in life. (Harry Harlow's poor rhesus macaques demonstrated this most tragically and persuasively.) But touch is critical at that early stage in part because it is instructive: a mother's or other's tactile tenderness teaches us what kind of touch is safe, and when. Squirming, jostling littermates and human carers contribute significantly to that education in the case of most dogs. Physical intimacy is double-edged for all of us: it has the simultaneous potential to be terribly harmful or deeply rewarding. So each of us necessarily becomes a connoisseur of touch, highly idiosyncratic in our taste for different varieties of contact.

As Ken noted, in the practical life of a trainer or pet owner, the need to draw any distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers is not nearly so pressing as the question of whether something is reinforcing at all. The question for the woman with the terrier is not whether her dog has a primal desire for touch, but whether he wants to be touched by her, in that way, in that place, at that moment. His growling suggests that he does not. Which does not mean that her desire to touch her dog in such a way under such circumstances must remain forever frustrated, only that she needs to teach her dog to enjoy it. Or risk getting bit.

There are many people who see these (sometimes irresistible) urges to kiss, hug, and cuddle our pets as yet another dangerous form of anthropomorphism. This is true to the extent that our species-typical touch repertoires do not everywhere overlap, and we need to be attentive to the places where they typically diverge. But when we're talking about an individual human and an individual dog (or cat or monkey or whale or other human), knowledge of what is typical may not only be immaterial, it may also be distorting. There are quite a few of us humans who find hugs from most people in most contexts highly aversive. Some find them aversive from all people in all contexts. Can we be shaped to enjoy them? Most of us, probably. But the more often we get hugged when we do not want to be hugged, by people who just want to show us how much they love us, the less a hug will communicate that professed love, and the more likely we'll be to interpret it as invasive and aggressive. As someone who should really know better, I am sorry to say that I think I inflicted an unwanted hug on someone this weekend, and the sincerity of my affection had no bearing on the question of whether it was rewarding for the victim. I "anthropomorphized" her, insofar as I made the narcissistic assumption that my desire to hug her was mirrored by her desire to be hugged.

Animals do this to us, too, as we'd be wise to remember the next time we get leapt on, slobbered over, or humped. My husband has a pair of black running tights that we've taken to calling his "sexy pants," because they drive our boy Pazzo into an amorous frenzy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Pete vaguely resembles Pazzo from the waist down when he wears them.) Pazzo is clearly sincere in his passion for Pete, but the very force of that passion makes him insensitive to the question of how best to express it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Calm before assertive

I recently picked up Cesar's Rules, Cesar Millan's newest book (co-written by Melissa Jo Peltier), and dug in with interest and a little trepidation. Like many who shelter under the "positive trainer" label, I have strong misgivings about Millan's methods and influence, misgivings inspired partly by the handful of his shows that I've seen and the smattering of his articles that I've read, but in the main by the multitude of people I've encountered who claim him as an authority in their efforts to become "leaders of the pack." In Cesar's Rules, Millan laments that many of his critics lambaste him without taking the trouble to understand his teachings, but I think he should worry at least as much about those who lionize him without taking the trouble to understand his teachings, or more importantly, without mastering the knowledge and skills that would enable them to employ his methods with relative safety. And I remain deeply skeptical that certain of his methods can be used by anyone with absolute safety.

Watching The Dog Whisperer makes it clear even to this critical observer that a) Millan is a highly skilled communicator and listener, b) he has amassed a great deal of informal knowledge about dogs, and c) he genuinely desires the best for all the animals (human and otherwise) with whom he works. Artful editing may give a fairy tale glow to each abbreviated narrative, but I don't think it can mask Millan's essential character, and I have never sensed that his use of strong aversives was an expression either of sadism or of an ego run amok. I bought Cesar's Rules for much the same reason that he says was inspired to write it: I think it is vital that people who share similar core values and aims find a way to air their differences and to learn from them. Many of the book's chapters center on other trainers, including a couple of heroes from the positive training world, Bob Bailey and Ian Dunbar. Elsewhere, too, Millan goes out of his way to express respect, and at moments even deference, toward views that conflict with his own.

Beyond that, I have been impressed while reading Cesar's Rules by what may or may not be a new emphasis on patience. Not having read Millan's other books, I don't know whether they supply a similar corrective to the implicit promise his show makes that "calm and assertive" leadership will produce near-immediate results. But it is striking here in his anecdotes and instruction how often he stresses the importance of baby steps. He has generously (and to his own benefit, of course) highlighted and disseminated the wisdom of other trainers, but I've also found myself nodding along with many of his personal insights. His stated desire to honor each individual animal is at the heart of my own philosophy of training (again, whether we're talking about canine or human animals).

Which brings us back to the questions surrounding "assertive" leadership and the use of strong aversives (or "positive" punishment). To Millan's credit, he acknowledges and makes a good faith effort to hear and faithfully represent the criticisms leveled against this aspect of his teaching. As I noted above, I think Millan's message is dangerous primarily for the encouragement it gives to those who lack his skills and understanding. When such people "assert" themselves with their dogs, they often become abusive and/or teach their dogs to be similarly "assertive," and the results can be disastrous. Millan quotes Ian Dunbar on this risk: "I teach mostly noncontact techniques, and there's a good reason for that. Most human hands can't be trusted... It's one thing if you're an experienced animal handler like you or me, 'cause you know which animals you dare touch and how you can touch them. The training methods that I would prescribe have nothing to do with the way I would train a dog or you would train a dog. It has to do with the fact that this is a family and there's two children in it. They're not necessarily going to have the observational skills that we have, or the speed or the timing, and certainly not the dog savvy. But they still have to learn to live happily with their dog."

I think Dunbar lets Millan off the hook a little too easily here, as I don't imagine there exists any great gap between how either man teaches others to train and how he trains dogs himself. And that's really the point. In his defense of e-collars, Millan enlists Temple Grandin to support his point that a strong aversive may be the most effective way to interrupt the prey drive at its highest intensity, and indeed it may be the only efficient way to do it. I'm grudgingly open to the arguments he makes for their careful use in special circumstances where a dog's safety is at stake and other solutions elusive. But I think (I hope) that, once Cesar opens the door to exclusively positive modes of training, he'll have an increasingly difficult time resorting to (and justifying) the regular use of leash "pops" and other physical corrections. Once you recognize that they're unnecessary to pretty much any training (and rehabilitation!) task you might face, and once you see the enormous uptick in mutual trust that results from a strong commitment to a "no harm, no force" ethic, you may need time to shake your old habits, but the logic of love says you must.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If dogs wore shoes...

...we'd more easily walk a mile in them. But most don't, and those who do don't look happy about it. Our relationships with our pets are wonderfully peculiar, as the ties that bind us braid together intimacy and alienation. This is true to a degree of all relationships (between dogs, between people, and certainly between cats), but when we extend our interest and care beyond the bounds of our own species, we seem sometimes to find more direct access to each other's emotions than we ever enjoy with our nearer kin. At those very moments, however, we may also be struck by the other's unfathomable otherness.

I think we need to sustain and not to collapse the tension between these simultaneous truths -- "we understand each other perfectly" and "we don't understand each other at all" -- if we want to flourish together. More, I think we should celebrate it. In the history of our relations with other animals, and particularly in the history of our domestication of other animals (and their domestication of us!), views have tended to swing from one pole to the other, from the conviction that other animals exist only as extensions of human need (or of human fear, as in the case of the benighted wolf) to the conviction that they exist utterly apart from us. Wittgenstein's oft-quoted aphorism captures the latter belief nicely: "If a lion could speak, we couldn't understand him." Likewise, Thomas Nagel's famous (and to his mind impossible) question -- what is it like to be a bat? -- encourages an all-or-nothing judgment on the possibility of shared experience. But otherness is always radical, and subjective feelings of connection are always an objective illusion. (Or rather, the connection itself is illusory, though the feeling would probably show up on a brain scan.) We have no direct means of access to any other being's perception of the world, no matter the species, so unless we wish to retreat into lonely solipsism, we have to make do with indirect means and earnest approximations.

With that limitation in mind, we have good reason (founded on objective evidence) to suppose that, in many ways, our pets' and other animals' emotional and cognitive experience strongly resembles our own. The speaker whose talk I'm most excited to hear at the upcoming Clicker Expo is Jaak Panksepp, the neuroscientist who holds the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University (wonderful that there should be a chair so endowed). He is one of a small (but happily increasing) number of scientists who dare to emphasize the obvious homologies (common structures with common origins) among diverse animal minds, especially among the minds of humans and other social mammals. (I use "minds" advisedly, as Panksepp is interested in subjective as well as scientific modes of inquiry and description.) He is also leading research into homologies that are not so obvious, teasing out the physiology and chemistry that underlie those brain processes that we hold in common (and variations that we do not). His book Affective Neuroscience is a marvel. Densely technical in places, it nonetheless serves both as an excellent overview of contemporary research into the dynamics of primary emotions (including their influence on cognition and learning) and as an eloquent, richly speculative description of the big questions that remain.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Marker training basics III

what next?
Strengthening the marker's power.

Once you've established an association for your dog (or other animal) between the sound of your chosen marker and some valued reward, you can begin to use the marker to identify and encourage any and all behavior you like. If you have a totally untrained young pup, you might mark and reward a moment's quiet in an outburst of barking, then the next moment, and the next, until you find that the moments accumulate into longer spells of sweet silence.* Moments of eye contact are another great place to start with puppies and many full-grown dogs: everything you do in training will be built on a foundation of focused attention, so make it as wide and deep as you can. Don't worry at first about attaching cues to these behaviors. Saying "quiet" before your dog has arrived at a solid physical understanding of what quiet is will only create needless frustration for you both. And saying "QUIET!" will probably convince him that whatever he's barking at is even more threatening or exciting than he thought, since you're suddenly barking too.

If your dog already performs one or more behaviors pretty reliably when you ask for them, you could begin simply by marking correct responses to your cue. What's correct? For now, whatever it has been in the past. If your dog habitually responds to "sit" by backing up a couple of steps and settling lazily onto one haunch while sticking his other back leg out to the side, you know that's his definition of the word. Yours might be different, but for the moment you can set aside the task of bringing the two definitions together. Mark and reward every sit that follows your "sit," no matter how slow, no matter how sloppy. (You may find the sits get quicker and straighter in spite of your absence of effort.)

A few things to remember:
  1. Give the cue only once. If your dog fails to respond, wait at least twenty seconds (and until you have his full attention) before giving it again, or "Sit. Sit. Sit!" may become your cue. Treat all words like empty vessels, and fill them deliberately with meaning.**
  2. The mark is always followed by a reward. You don't have to mark every repetition of the behavior (I'll talk later about effective "schedules" for marking), but when you do mark, you're making a promise on which you need to deliver.
  3. Work on one new behavior at a time. There's a significant exception to this rule that I'll talk about later, but this helps avoid confusion for the animal and accelerates learning.
  4. Work in short sessions. Very short! Ten to fifteen repetitions between breaks. At the first sign of fatigue or fading interest, stop.
  5. End on a high note. If possible, end with the new behavior you've been training, but if necessary end with a behavior the dog already knows well. Success breeds success.
What's most important in the early going (and ever after) is that you and your animal enjoy yourselves. I won't go into an elaborate defense of positive training methods here, but they follow from the (scientifically sound) premise that the training of voluntary behaviors proceeds most effectively and predictably from a state of eager but contained anticipation (especially in the case of a predatory animal). But even when training's fun, it's taxing. Again, the moment you notice your dog's interest flagging, or your own impatience rising, stop -- always, if you can help it, with a fresh success, however small. That way you'll continually create positive associations (for you and your animal) with training itself.

*On the other hand, I do not recommend that you begin by marking and rewarding a bark, especially if you're using a more powerful marker like a clicker. One thing to keep in mind is that the first few behaviors you effectively marker train will become the animal's default behaviors in future training. Quietly attentive behaviors (like eye contact or sit) are your best choices at the start.

**The trick with words (and other cues and markers) as vessels of meaning is that they might already be topped up. Old meanings can be difficult to dislodge, especially if they're loaded with pain or fear. Thus it's a very good idea (though sometimes difficult in practice) to avoid saying your pet's name in anger. If you want a truly empty word, try something rare, silly, or foreign. I lived in Bologna more than twenty years ago, and pretty much the only time I get to knock the rust off my Italian these days is when I'm cueing Pazzo with "fusilli!" (left spin) or "bombolone!" (right spin).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Marker training basics II

Sounds like...
Making the marker meaningful.

The principles and methods I'm describing here work across species; they've been used effectively in the training of countless animals, from rabbits to rhinoceroses, from grizzlies to gerenuks. (I highly recommend that all skeptics check out this brief article by Karen Pryor and the embedded video of a marker-trained rhino.) Before her death last year, our lovely calico Hops had learned through marker training to target my hand with her nose and to give me a head butt on the cue "Zidane" (which will only make sense if you follow European football). Most of my experience, however, has been with dogs, and for ease of reference I'll focus my discussion on them.

As I noted in the previous post, it's important that the stimulus you choose as a marker should initially possess little or no meaning for the animal you want to train. This will give you full freedom to endow it with the meaning you want: "Well done! Good things coming!" Here's yet another reason that words can be problematic as markers -- unless you're training a young puppy and you can commit in a disciplined way to reserving your marker word(s) exclusively for training, there's a high likelihood that their meanings will become muddied with unintended associations.

I'm strongly sympathetic to the visceral distaste that many people feel for clickers and other mechanical soundmaking doo-hickeys. They're cold and fussy and seem to require a third hand that we haven't got. Still more annoying, they interpose a barrier of artifice between trainer and trainee. However, for consistency, precision, and repeatability, they're really hard to beat. And paradoxical as it may seem, the little gap they introduce in our "natural" communication with other animals actually improves our mutual understanding immeasurably. No, I take that back -- the improvement can be measured, has been measured, and it's big.

So I recommend a clicker despite the possibility that it may not be totally neutral for you or your dog. Contrary to popular belief, you won't need to use it forever: once you've trained a specific behavior and put it reliably on cue, word markers will usually suffice to maintain the training. But you'll get to that maintenance stage much more quickly with a clicker, and once you're there I can pretty much guarantee that you'll notice a significant uptick in your dog's enthusiasm and attention anytime you pick that silly gadget back up. Likewise your cat's -- Hops would immediately start purring whenever I started a new training session.

Of course, that wasn't her first response to the clicker. She was mostly indifferent to it, maybe a little affronted. The sound it makes is short, sharp, and attention grabbing, qualities that make it effective for training but also make it rude in other contexts. So you'll want to introduce it carefully, from a distance, or muffled in a pocket. (It's best to avoid pointing the clicker like a t.v. remote at your dog's face.) Gauge your dog's response. Curiosity and/or indifference are a fine place to start, but if you see him/her shrink back, you'll need to take things more slowly.

If you decide to use another marker, just do what you can to keep it precise and consistent. A single syllable like "yes" generally works better to this end than a longer word.

Your first and most important task is to persuade your dog that, from this moment on, the following equation holds absolutely true:

"click" (or "yes") = wonderfulness

In order to establish that equation, you need to know what your dog already considers wonderful. Ideally you can identify among the many things your dog loves some thing(s) that are easily doled out in small bits. Food is the obvious candidate for a predatory species, and the one I rely on most heavily (probably too heavily, made complacent by my dogs' eager appetites). For early training, when the strength of a good impression takes precedence over perfect nutrition, I like (because my dogs like) hot dogs and smoked mozzarella, which are relatively inexpensive, have great intensity of flavor, and are easily divvied into tiny (1/4" by 1/4") cubes. Red Barn and Natural Balance also make meaty but dry food rolls that are as mouthwatering (to most dogs) as they are nourishing; they're my treat of choice when I work with dogs at the Oregon Humane Society. But it's good and sometimes necessary to think beyond food rewards; depending on the animal and the situation, they may be impractical and/or unrewarding. I've been working with Pazzo recently on his ability to keep the leash loose when we walk through our local squirrel-infested park (where he may be totally indifferent to food that isn't on the move). When he pulls the leash taut, I simply stop. The moment he gives me slack, I click and move with him in the direction of the squirrel. To Pazzo's delight, the squirrels will often double-down on my reward by staying put, and we've thus become a great slow-motion stalking team. Likewise, agility trainers will often reward their dogs with quick games of tug, and trainers of impassioned herders carefully control their access to sheep.

But for clarity's sake I'll assume that you've got a clicker, a hungry dog, and a stash of small, tasty food treats. Here's what you need to do:
  1. Click.
  2. Treat.
  3. Repeat.
That's it. There are only a couple of competing provisos: try not to move your "treat hand" until after you've clicked, but deliver the treat as quickly as possible (within a second of the click). Finding a rhythm that keeps those two events close but distinct will make the click most meaningful to your dog and help unlock his/her exclusive focus on the treats.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Marker training basics I

Worth a thousand words?
On the definition and choice of a marker.

Even (or especially) among experienced animal trainers and savvy pet owners, I often encounter a strong prejudice against "clicker training." The phrase itself is a turnoff to many, which is one reason I've come to prefer the more or less interchangeable terms "marker training" or "bridge training." These latter phrases describe the approach more accurately and inclusively -- people naturally get confused when you tell them that "clicker training" doesn't necessarily involve a clicker. Another reason I favor the second two terms is that they have so far escaped strong commercial association and appropriation.**

"Marker training" is the most literal and straightforward of the three, so it's the one I'll use from now on. My aim here and in future "basics" posts is to lay out the foundational principles, reasoning, and tools of this approach so that you'll be free to adapt them to your own needs and ends. I'll also try to anticipate some of the challenges you might encounter when starting out, and to offer possible solutions. But one of the foremost advantages of marker training is its flexibility: once you have a good command of the core ideas, you and the animal you're training have infinite creative license in putting them to use!

Marker training falls under the larger umbrella of positive training methods; indeed, it's something we all practice whenever we say "good dog!" But a solid understanding of how and why it works can help us practice it much more deliberately and effectively.

As with the "good dog!" example, a marker is simply a stimulus chosen by the trainer to signal two things and establish a vital connection between them:
  1. I like that behavior.
  2. You will be rewarded.
An effective marker satisfies a few important criteria:
  1. It is specific.
  2. It is easily reproduced by the trainer.
  3. It is easily perceived by the trainee.
  4. It is initially neutral, meaning that it has little or no intrinsic meaning to the trainee.
I don't know of any successful use of taste markers, given that few tastes are truly neutral to any animal; smells can be tricky for the same reason but are sometimes used as markers, most obviously and often in tracking work. Sight markers are tops in neutrality, but not always easily reproduced or perceived. Like touch markers, they may be most useful with animals who have lost use of one or more of their senses, or in situations where sound markers are impractical or forbidden. For most trainers and trainees, in most situations, sound markers tend to be most adaptable and workable. That said, they require more care in their choice and use than you might expect.

Why is that? Part of the problem ironically arises from our great facility in producing varied and complex sounds, our gift of the gab. The general human reliance on words to convey meaning makes many of us sloppy with tone (unless we speak a tonal language), volume, enunciation, inflection, and emphasis. In other words, we take the least care with precisely those variables that other animals are most likely to find intelligible. We toss flurries of meaningless syllables their way like so many snowballs -- and instead of congratulating them for catching a few on the fly, we berate them for being stubborn and slow. Our carelessness in expression is mirrored by our bluntness in perception. Few of us can reliably hear the difference between one "good dog!" and another (less enthusiastic, slower in tempo, higher in pitch, etc.) but a dog can. "Sit, Stormy. Sit! Get down, Stormy! No, Stormy! Sit!" may be roughly translated as: "My poor owner is working herself unnecessarily into a lather." The more loquacious we are, the more faith we place in language, the less likely it is that our pets will understand us.

So choosing and using sound markers effectively requires that we get humble; we need to begin from a recognition of our limitations. Most of us just don't possess the emotional and vocal control we need to produce sounds that are highly specific, consistent, and intrinsically neutral. Which is not to say that words cannot work as markers, only that their ease of use masks (and even contributes to) their inefficacy relative to other, more precise sound markers. Like clickers, yes, but also like whistles, chimes, and bells. Training by whoopee cushion, anyone?

**I am an ardent fan of Karen Pryor (trainer and educator extraordinaire, founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clickertraining), forever grateful to her for her insight, her dedication to reality over "common knowledge" (e.g. dominance theory), and her tireless advocacy of positive training methods. The six months I spent under the instruction of Helix Fairweather with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior were tremendously illuminating and rewarding. I am proud to be certified by KPA as a trainer, and I plan to attend ClickerExpo here in Portland at the end of the month. I do, however, think there's a downside to Karen's mostly laudable efforts to establish common professional standards and gather like-minded trainers into one big tent, particularly when there are fees collected at many of the tent's entrances. I had a mostly friendly tussle with KPCT's president, Aaron Clayton, when I graduated from KPA and learned that my promised year of free access to the alumni message boards was contingent upon my entering a marketing agreement that would require me to display the KPA logo on my website and anywhere else I advertised my services as a trainer. In this instance and a few others, I found that independence of thought and self-presentation ran somewhat at odds with the commercial imperatives of KPCT (as they would with those of most for-profit ventures).