Category Archives: Training

Piano exams and the science of dog training

File:Piano practice hands.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam.  The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.

I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and  feedback,  I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white and (very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.

To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov.  I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.

So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.  

I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,

When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.  

So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignominious failure it became.

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Stimulus control

One of the most interesting ‘rules’ I heard about when I started clicker training, and started to look at the science behind learning, was the concept of stimulus control. i.e. you give significance to a cue by ONLY reinforcing that particular version of a behaviour when you present the cue. You also DIDN’T reward it in the absence of that cue. I learned from experience the environmental cues mattered too, but the principles remain the same.


Don’t want your dog to randomly jump up and grab things – e,g, the lead – in your hand? Teach a cue which means ‘grab what is in my hand’ and put it under stimulus control. No need to tell the dog off or stop playing tuggie with the lead, or tuggie toys that look like leads, just don’t reward him for jumping up grabbing without that ‘permission’ cue.

From a competitive obedience point of view that was highly desirable and what we really did – and do -need.

Domestically…did it matter so much? I thought then that it probably did, and still do. Its just so much harder to use effectively in the ‘real world’. It teaches the dog the cues you present to them – i.e. your ‘commands’ – ARE important, worth listening to and are opportunities to earn reinforcement. Those cues don’t have to be verbal. They can be gestures, but verbal cues are usual far simpler and more black and white to teach. There was a great video of one trainer showing how he taught it ….cue, behaviour, good consequence. No cue – behaviour? No positive consequence. i.e. no reward. Just repeated and repeated in a random way, until the penny drops.

For behaviours that aren’t reinforced by other people, or intrinsically rewarding (a great example usually being barking) , it is a great way to reduce the dog randomly annoying us with things we’ve only half trained them to do or things we want them to do sometimes, but not at others. It also explains why once a dog understands a ‘cue’ and it’s been taught the concept of stimulus control (dogs do get it!), they will steadfastly appear to “refuse” to do it when you use even a slightly different cue by mistake.

Want a more comprehensive, but very readable, explanation? Look at chapter 3 in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoort the Dog.

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Wait or stay?

Wait? Stay?

One of the less useful lessons past dog trainers taught us human pupils was to perpetuate the idea that ‘WAIT’ and ‘STAY were significantly and importantly different commands (and back in the day they were commands – not cues!). Why? Because it suggested to owners it mattered whether or not you were going to go back to the dog, or recall it. It mattered what was going to happen as a consequence of that wait. Or stay. It doesn’t. Really it doesn’t.

Here’s the human analogy

You go to the theatre. You are asked to wait in a bar first until the doors are opened. What actual words the usher uses to communicate this are irrelevant so long as you understand them. If you don’t understand because you speak different languages or you are deaf she is likely to find a way to gesture or show you so you DO understand. (In dogs we make that easier by using food treats).

You wait. Why? Because you have been trained to ever since you were a child. Possibly by the promise of sweeties, dinner or getting into a cinema or whatever it is you have to wait for. It’s called ‘upbringing’ or ‘teaching’ in human circles rather than training though. You might have a drink and something to eat while you wait in the theatre bar which will increase your motivation to wait there, rather than wander off somewhere else. But the chief motivation is the expectation of being given the opportunity to get to your seat to enjoy the play.

So you wait. You are then given a cue to get up and go in and take your seat. Again the words that are used don’t matter so long as you understand they mean. ‘You can go in now’.
But although you may be expecting a cue that says ‘now go in – the play is about to start’, you will also have learned completely different cues that might have you getting up and choosing to do something else entirely e.g. if you hear a fire bell. You might get up and leave. The cue of a particular type of loud bell ringing meaning ‘get up and leave a building’ is also trained in us all from an early age. The cue of a friend calling you on your mobile suggesting you wait somewhere else, for instance, if the motivation to go and meet that friend is greater than the desire to see the play might have you leaving the theatre too.

But so long as you KNOW you will be told when to get up and get to do the thing you are waiting for, AND you want that thing enough, then you will wait won’t you?

The Doggy Waiting Room

It doesn’t matter if you use a platform, a crate or a start line. Or just a patch of grass. You may want the dog to wait there until asked to do something else.  The dog needs to learn a cue which means ‘hang about there until you hear a cue to do something else’. It makes zero difference whether you say wait, stay or ‘shazam’. It’s all in what you decide what each word means.

One of the more useful reasons for asking a dog to stay in a specific place until asked to move – the posed photo 🙂

Then the dog also needs a cue which means ‘the wait is over now’. We humans like to teach short, single words in dog training because it’s easier for dogs to understand.  The word is shorthand for that ‘you can go in and take your seat to enjoy the play now’ moment.

In the dog’s case It could be the opportunity to have a game with a tuggie (‘TUG!), or go fetch the ball (FETCH!), or ‘do your agility round now’ ‘GO!’. Or simply ‘OFF YOU GO’ or ‘OK’ meaning ‘go off and enjoy yourself doing whatever you choose. Be a dog.

It entirely depends on what you want the dog to do next – something, or even nothing – what cue you choose to teach and use. So forget WAIT/STAY debates. Just teach the dog the cues you want to attach to what opportunities you are offering your dog.

 

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How do I find a dog trainer?

FINDING A DOG TRAINER

People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues and how to find a decent dog trainer. FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to have someone meet you and your dog(s) since what people say and report they are experiencing is often a far cry from the what the DOG is saying and doing.

clicker

Does the trainer use positive techniques?

Also a qualified (in its broadest sense) professional, experienced in coaching skills with a commitment to continuing their own learning and development, is usually much better placed to offer informed and up to date advice either in your home or in a class. It’s an area where skills are constantly improving and changing as more and more scientific evidence appears.

BUT…and it is an important BUT. There are (sadly) some very poor trainers in business out there and although in the dog training and behaviour world there is a hot debate about who should be calling themselves dog trainers or behaviourists, at the moment the whole industry is unregulated to the point of anarchy.

Experienced or qualified?
There are some excellent people who have no paper qualifications, but oodles of great experience. There are plenty of people who have excellent academic qualifications and loads of knowledge, but not so much hands-on experience. With all shades of both (or neither) in between. There are also people who may have high profiles but whose self-promotion skills are far greater than their dog training skills. There’s no easy way to know who would be best to help you.

The best you can do – in the absence of informed personal recommendation – is probably to go with someone who belongs to one of the reputable organisations who have a commitment to evidence based, positive techniques, ideally with an effective procedure for handling complaints about members (not all do) to make sure their code of conduct, or ethics, and rules are adhered to. Literally ANYONE can set themselves up a trainer or behaviourist – and some people WILL do harm if they are let loose on your dogs.

If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem it is always best to get a vet to check the dog over first – undiagnosed pain is a common factor in aggression and other behaviour problems.

Dog training organisations

Here’s a list of some organisations (in alphabetical order – not in order of any kind of criteria of excellence) I’d suggest are worth checking to get help – all of them have guidelines about who they accept as members which should give you some useful information. It does NOT mean all their members are necessarily suitable for your needs, so don’t just assume they will be. The older organisations may have members admitted under older, less rigorous, criteria.

ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. A newish organisation which brings together on 2 registers (one for training, and one for behaviour) members of a number of organisations. However, it is in its infancy and does not include plenty of excellent qualified trainers and behaviourists and does include some people who are not as experienced as one might like.   (http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk)
APBC – Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (https://www.apbc.org.uk)
APDT – Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK) (http://www.apdt.co.uk)
IMDT – Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (https://www.imdt.uk.com)
PACT – Professional Association of Dog Trainers (http://www.pact-dogs.com)
Long and short – it’s a bit of a gamble!

Do your research

It is so important to do your research. Dog training and behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills that will produce the same result in every case once you’ve mastered those skills since there is a very complicated and complex variable we lack so much information about…the dog. It’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive. At least, not yet. 🙂

1 – Internet – Google (of course 🙂 ) . Your place name + dog trainer or similar. Ask on FB groups.

2 – Check the websites of likely candidates. Does it give a person’s name? Do you know who you would be letting loose on your dog? Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a dog trainer because I love dogs” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. wins in specific activities which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems

Are they members of any reputable organisation? (See above).

Do they describe HOW they train? Do they state what approach they take? They should. But of course be sceptical. People can say what they like on websites and some trainers are pretty creative. Plenty of them use punishment techniques which we know do harm, but they don’t tend to be upfront so don’t take their word for it. Go and watch them at work.

3 – Go to a class and observe.  Contact trainers first (it’s the polite and respectful thing to do) and ask to go and watch a class. Be prepared for them not to have time to chat

Do the dogs in the class look happy?

to you there, but just observing will inform you. Do they put across what they want people to learn in an effective way? Do the dogs look happy and relaxed and enjoying themselves? Are the methods consistent with up to date techniques and practices? i.e. no use of check chains, water squirters or other forms of nasty aversives. If they won’t allow anyone to go and observe then they need to have a jolly good reason for it. Don’t just rely on their (edited) video clips online. Go see them in action. Reputable trainers welcome the opportunity to let you see what they do before you book their services.

4 – Ask other people locally – chat to local dog walkers, your vet, the local pet shop. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions though (both in favour and against). Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just  be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a trainer is, and the techniques they use, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.

5 – Consider getting a vet referral to a qualified behaviourist for any major behaviour problem. A qualified behaviourist is likely to ask for your vet to do a health check before they will work with you and it is often needed to eliminate pain, the fear of pain or other health issues.

Once you’ve settled on a trainer or class, well, enjoy yourselves! Training your dog should be a load of fun for both of you so have a great time learning together.

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Spot the difference

A dog in one of my classes has been something of a barker around other dogs. Not confident around strange dogs, but nothing major. In the hall on his own, happy to work, happy to play.

In the hall with just one other dog – a well behaved, under control, and being kept calm dog – you would not have known the first dog was worried except for a few moments when he looked across and considered barking, but was interrupted so he didn’t escalate to it.

But he did not want to play tuggie this time. Very avoiding of it.
So he was moved out of the hall into the lobby. Still didn’t want to play initially, but was willing to fairly quickly.

An excellent example of a sensitivity we absolutely need to notice – and be aware of when we expect things of our dog we ‘believe’ they know and understand. If a dog won’t eat treats (or is grabby taking treats – which this dog also was), or play, or relax in one environment when he does do those things in a different environment (the other dog made this hall a ‘different’ environment) then there is something happening we should be noticing.

If the dog is discriminating in this way you should immediately be asking yourself ‘why?’. And you probably need to do something about it.

In this case the ONLY change (apart from the passing of time – about half an hour – so not significant I’d say) was the presence of this other dog.

What you DO about it is entirely different issue of course and a subject for another day 🙂

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Misunderstandings

Can you remember the first time you used a cash machine to get money out of a hole in the wall? I can’t. I’ve no recollection of how or when I acquired the skill. But I know that if I want to get cash out, I have to perform a sequence of pretty complex behaviours to get it. I have to drive to a machine, with a specific card (and only that card will do), be able to read the instructions, recall a number from memory, tap it in and then wait for the money to appear.

I have also learned what doesn’t work to get money out of it. Just standing staring at the machine hopefully doesn’t have the money magically appear. Trying other bank cards doesn’t work. Entering random numbers doesn’t either. Hitting the machine in frustration when I can’t remember the number will also fail. Short of getting some kind of heavy vehicle to ramraid the cash dispenser the ONLY way of getting what I want (cash), is to come up with the behaviours I have learned. Worse, if I continue to ‘guess’ and make too many mistakes, the machine removes all possibility I might get my money by eating my card!

What lessons can we take from this to help our dog training? Loads.

For starters, if I don’t understand how to work a cash dispensing machine, I cannot get any money. It’s not possible. It doesn’t matter how much money is available, or how much I want it or how motivated I am. If I don’t understand how to perform those specific behaviours I will not get the “reward” since the banks have (understandably) made it virtually impossible to get money out if you get the sequence of behaviours wrong.  So if I don’t understand the task, or know how to carry out that sequence of behaviours, how can I manipulate the machine into giving me money? I can’t.  Likewise, it doesn’t matter one iota how much our dogs want the hotdogs, game of tuggie or ball that we are offering them, if they don’t understand the task we expect of them, how can they possibly carry it out unless they are plain lucky, and hit on the idea of what works by sheer chance? And if they do, will they remember what they did, or understand what the cues were to success?

Wren cannot understand ‘fetch’ means bring that toy to me unless or until she is taught it.
That she might hit on the idea of bringing it to me by sheer chance can mean it would be quick and easy to teach, but it wouldn’t mean she understood what the word ‘fetch’ means until I have done a load of training and teaching. 

One message to take from this is that sometimes we completely overestimate how well our dogs understand what we want of them. OK, so the tasks we ask of them may appear simple to us, but that’s because we know what we want the dog to do and because, well, we are humans, not dogs. We function and perceive things differently. But nonetheless, we too frequently, expect them to understand tasks when we haven’t taken the time and trouble to train them so they can understand. So when your dog doesn’t do as you ask, ask yourself – does he really understand? Or is he, like us sometimes, staring helplessly at a cash machine, trying to work out precisely which sequence of buttons to press to get the desired outcome? Or is he guessing and trying random versions that might work?

 

 

 

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