An Open Letter to Dog Trainers:

After 8 years of watching the results of shelters and animal control I knew what dog owners needed. You can’t have people hand you their dog and not figure it out after ten or fifteen thousand. Yes, they lie on exit questionnaires. That should be assumed. They say what they can to get themselves off the moral hook. As they are new to the process of giving up a dog the use trite, non-justifications – they’re moving, The dog digs holes. It jumps the fence. All may be true – but the questionnaire readers swallow the lies and discount the truth. That is because they haven’t received 10,000 dogs from people. They extract the data and then twist it to their own purpose.
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Variable Consequences – Key Ingredient of Learning

Variable Consequences – Part 1.

“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” – Aldous Huxley

While Huxley may not have known much about dog training, his point was well taken. In order for  an  organism to be alive, it must be able to vary its behavior according to changing circumstances. Even though most forms of dog competition require consistent performance, behavioral variability is  a key ingredient to  creating exceptional performance levels. Trainers who understand how to use variability and consistency are better able create and maintain their dog’s great performance.
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The Emperor’s New Khaki Clothes.

Once upon a time I was asked to go to one of the most prestigious zoos in the country as a consultant. They are so prestigious that I was not allowed to refer to myself as a consultant. The behavior director gave me an intimate tour that included going past an adult ocelot in a long, narrow ‘natural’ cage about 30 yards long and 6 yards wide. The cat stayed at one end. He would leap up on the fence, leap to the corner fence, drop to the ground, head toward his starting point and do it again…and again…and again. The cat was clearly mad from confinement. Why was it on display? To attract customers. It was the only ocelot they had.ocelot

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The Formula

1) Strengthen tendencies toward a behavior that the dog can pigeon-hole as a unique behavior. This can be done with either positive or negative reinforcement.
2) Once the behavior is predictably replicable, precede the behavior with an arbitrary cue. If you wish to use different modalities (visual vs. auditory vs. tactile) put them in sequence, NOT at the same time.
3) Practice the pattern using positive reinforcement.
4) Create a situation likely to fail. Apply “punishment for failure to perform a known behavior in a timely fashion” – Do it right and do it right now. You may have to use positive reinforcement to increase likelihood of response. Then repeat this process until it happens ‘right, right now’. This is a critical step and may take several shots dropping to #3 to get to another round of #4.
5) Integrate the behavior into the dog’s repertoire so that you can get it when you want it and no other behavior conflicts. This will use reinforcement and punishment (both types of each) as needed to maintain high levels of performance and reliability.
6) Maintain the behavior as needed. If it fails, go back to step 1. Do not try to take a short cut by dropping to a slightly lower level of performance. You may have a fundamental error embedded in the behavior at any part of the process.

Done.
p.s. If you can’t state a concise formula for what you do, work on it. Simplifying it to basic principles helps clarify the process. It also makes trouble-shooting easier.

Tell me what you won’t do – I’ll tell you what you can’t do.

Tell me what you won’t do and I’ll tell you what you can’t do.
Tell me what you don’t know and I’ll tell you what you can’t know. – Gary Wilkes

I know behavior. Not just dogs. I know 9 species, including humans. There are commonalities to all of them. There are differences to all of them. They all respond to fundamental principles of behavior. If you recall, that was B.F. Skinner’s mantra – watching a pigeon allows you to extrapolate to the entire population of humans and animals on the planet. That is highly unlikely to be true, even if you examine how pigeons behave in nature. Now imagine you decide that you are only going to study how often they do a single behavior – an instinctive behavior NOT common to most species…pecking things. Then decide that you ‘prefer’ one of the polarities of behavioral effects…positive reinforcement. Now go back and look at my two statements at the top of my post.
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