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Teaching Reactive Dogs A New Habit, Part II: “Look At That!”

CLICK! Look at Mom Treat!

Dogs that react very quickly to certain stimuli are often trained as hearing alert dogs; these dogs don’t miss a thing, and are trained to alert their handlers to important sounds. Other dogs are very visual and super vigilant about visual changes going on around them. Many dogs learn to react to changes in their environment out of stress, anxiety, or fear that develops from these states. If dogs learn to react to new things entering their environment by barking and lunging, they become difficult to train for anything – even going on a nice walk with the family. We want the dog to notice what’s coming into his field of perception, we just want to teach him how to respond in a way that works for everyone.

Previously, I wrote about a training technique that you can use almost “in the moment,” when you’re out with your dog and a trigger stimulus — something that tends to make the dog react – appears in your vicinity. That is the “Open Bar” technique (see Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit, Part I: “Open Bar”.) In this article, I’ll explain a technique called “Look at That!” which breaks the process down into even smaller, more controllable pieces so that you can easily set up practice sessions and your dog can learn it very quickly. I like to use both techniques, interchanging them as needed, to prevent a problem from occurring, or to change the behavior once it has reared its ugly head. The most recent and well-known version of “Look at That!” is explained in wonderful detail in a book called Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt.

The target behavior is for the dog to do a ‘chained’ behavior of (1) Look at Something, then (2) Look at Owner. It’s helpful to use a clicker to mark the dog looking at something in the beginning stages in order to reinforce both individual parts of the behavior. The best way to practice this is to find a comfortable place to sit or stand outside with the dog on a leash; somewhere familiar with people, dogs, and bikes going by regularly but at a low frequency. Pretend to mind your own business, but focus fully on the dog so as to be able to notice when he looks at something. When he turns his head away to look at something, click. He is likely to immediately turn back to look at you — give him a treat. It’s just that simple. If your dog is unfamiliar with a clicker, he’ll look at you to see what the sound was. When you give him the treat, he’ll begin to understand that when he hears the click, a treat is on the way. If your dog is afraid of the click, try another marker: use the word, “Yes!” pronounced softly but happily; it will mark the behavior just as the click will.

You can use this training game with puppies to prevent the development of reactive behavior. It’s a game, and it’s fun for puppies to discover what behavior makes you click and give him a treat. You can also use it to change reactive behavior once it has developed. Don’t start with the thing that most concerns the dog. If the reactive behavior of barking and lunging is toward other dogs when on leash, start teaching the behavior with cars that pass by, bicycles, or pedestrians. You can start teaching the behavior while the dog is indoors, and the two of you are looking through a window at birds, squirrels, cars, or just about anything. Then move outside, once the dog is doing the behavior of looking and then turning to you. Only after the behavior is pretty reliable should you practice with the real trigger – another dog or whatever it is. Set the exercise up with plenty of distance between your dog and the other dog; invite a friend with a calm, relaxed dog to help you.

Although we call this behavior, “Look at That,” it’s not necessary to tell the dog to do it; he will look at something at some point – you capture that behavior by clicking and giving a treat, and you’ve done one repetition. You can teach the dog to “Look at That” on your verbal cue once he is reliably offering this behavior, usually after several training sessions. Add the cue words just as he’s turning to look at something, click, then treat. Once he’s responding consistently to the words, you’ll be able to tell him to “Look at That!” and he’ll turn to look wherever you’re facing or pointing. Always reinforce this, because you want him to choose to happily “Look,” rather than other behaviors such as barking and lunging. Always practice this, because it has far-reaching effects which include looking to you for guidance, a valuable attitude that can really enhance your relationship with your dog and make training any behavior go a lot better. Putting “Look at That” on the verbal cue is not necessary to get the benefits this behavior offers; it’s just a development you can add. Even when you put the behavior on cue, continue to reinforce the default behavior of looking at something that could be disturbing to your dog and then looking back at you so you don’t miss out on the benefits of your dog choosing to check in with you instead of responding emotionally to something that concerns him.

“Look at That” may be difficult to understand until you’ve tried doing it with your dog. If you resist the urge to complicate it, and view it as simply a head turn toward something followed by a head turn toward yourself, you will reap the benefits of your dog paying attention to you more often and of him choosing to look to you for guidance rather than take matters into his own paws when he is concerned and is likely to go into his previous behavior of barking his head off at something.

With diligent and consistent work on this behavior, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement, you’ll begin to see your dog look purposefully at something and then at you as if to say, “Did you see me look at that? I get a treat for that, right?” At that point, you know you’ve successfully communicated to your dog what you want, and he is responding to an old cue in a new way. Bingo.

This training game, like most others, works through classical conditioning of an emotional response along with operant conditioning of a behavior. Classical conditioning changes the dog’s emotional response from defense toward a threat to anticipation of something good; operant conditioning is reinforcing the action of turning to look at something new in the dog’s environment followed by turning to look at you. This is powerful stuff and you’ll be changing your dog’s perception of something new in his environment from threatening to the source of a game with you. You’ll see the difference in his perception when he starts looking at what was previously a trigger to bark and lunge, then looking at you, and if you miss that first series of what he’s looking at, he’ll repeat the chain again as though to say, “Hey, do you see what I’m doing?! Where’s my treat?”

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Puppy Treat Training

Why use treats?

All puppies must eat to live. They don’t know much when they’re young, but they know about eating, and they like it! Training requires repetition; a pup can eat a treat quickly and be ready to go again.

Shouldn’t my puppy do what I want just to please me?

As much as we love puppies (and I do believe that they love us!) it’s very difficult to let them know what we want them to do since they don’t use language to communicate like we do. Giving a pup a treat when he’s doing a behavior we like has been scientifically shown to cause that behavior to be repeated. The more you reward it, the more you see it, so you are clearly letting him know what you want him to do.

Will my puppy get fat?

Puppies are growing fast and using up calories. As long as you give them healthy treats, some of which can be a portion of their regular puppy food, they will grow up physically and behaviorally healthy at the same time. Whole foods like meat, cheese, high quality formulated dog foods, even fruits and vegetables, cut into tiny pieces are great for communicating with puppies, one treat at a time.

What if I don’t have treats with me? Will I always have to carry treats?

During the early stages of training, make sure you have treats with you at all times. Get a belt pack and keep them in a plastic bag, and keep sealed containers of nonperishable treats around the house for easy access. As training progresses, you will be asking for more behavior per treat, but even as an elderly adult, your dog deserves to be paid for his efforts with a small treat! Owners of highly-trained performance dogs almost always have treats with them. Think of a treat as your puppy’s paycheck for a job well-done.

Will my puppy really be trained if I train with treats?

You can train well or train poorly, with treats or without. By giving your pup a treat when you like what he’s doing, you ensure he’ll do that behavior again. By doing many repetitions of this every day, he will be volunteering to do that behavior regularly. When you add a cue word or hand signal to the behavior, you can reward only when you ask for the behavior and control when the puppy does it. At that point, you’ve trained him to do the behavior on cue or “command.”

What is a “Training Treat?”

Because we want to do many repetitions of a behavior during training, training treats must be small, easily swallowed, and tasty. The size of a piece of dry dog food is best – ¼ to ½ inch, depending on the size of the puppy. You can use the pup’s regular food, bits of cheese or meat, pieces of fruits or vegetables, purchased small training treats, or even make your own training treats, as long as your pup likes them. It’s your puppy’s reward, so he has to like it enough to work for it.

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B. F. Skinner on How To Teach Animals

Teaching, it is often said, is an art, but we have increasing reason to hope that it may eventually become a science. We have already discovered enough about the nature of learning to devise training techniques which are much more rapid and give more reliable results than the rule-of-thumb methods of the past. Tested on animals, the new techniques have proved superior to traditional methods of professional animal trainers; they yield more remarkable results with much less effort.

It takes rather subtle laboratory conditions to test an animal’s full learning capacity, but the reader may be surprised at how much he can accomplish even under informal circumstances at home. Since nearly everyone at some time or other has tried, or wished he knew how, to train a dog, a cat, or some other animal, perhaps the most useful way to explain the learning process is to describe some simple experiments which the reader can perform himself.

“Catch your rabbit” is the first item in a well-known recipe for rabbit stew. Your first move, of course, is to choose an experimental subject. Any available animal – a cat, a dog, a pigeon, a mouse, a parrot, a chicken, a pig – will do. (Children or other members of your family may also be available, but it is suggested that you save them until you have had practice with less valuable material.) Suppose you choose a dog.

The second thing you will need is something your subject wants, say food. This serves as a reward or – to use a term which is less likely to be misunderstood – a “reinforcement” for the desired behavior. Many things besides food are reinforcing – for example, simply letting the dog out for a run – but food is usually the easiest to administer in the kind of experiment to be described here. If you use food, you must of course perform the experiment when the dog is hungry, perhaps just before his dinnertime.

The reinforcement gives you a means of controlling the behavior of the animal. It rests on the simple principle that whenever something reinforces a particular form of behavior, it increases the chances that the animal will repeat that behavior. This makes it possible to shape an animal’s behavior almost as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay. There is, of course, nothing new in this principle. What is new is a better understanding of the conditions under which reinforcement works best.

To be effective a reinforcement must be given almost simultaneously with the desired behavior; a delay of even one second destroys much of the effect. This means that offering food in the usual way is likely to be ineffective; it is not fast enough. The best way to reinforce the behavior with the necessary speed is to use a “conditioned” reinforcer. This is a signal which the animal has observed in association with food. The animal is always given food immediately after the signal, and the signal itself then becomes a reinforcer. The better the association between the two events, the better the result.

For a conditioned reinforcer you need a clear signal which can be given instantly and to which the subject is sure to respond. It may be a noise or a flash of light. A whistle is not recommended because of the time it takes to draw a breath before blowing it. A visual signal like a wave of the arm may not always be seen by the animal. A convenient signal is a rap on a table with a small hard object or the noise of a high-pitched device such as a “cricket.”

You are now ready to start the experiment with your dog. Work in a convenient place as free as possible from distraction. Let us say that you have chosen a “cricket” as your conditioned reinforcer. To build up its reinforcing power begin by tossing a few pieces of food, one at a time and not oftener than once or twice a minute, where the dog may eat them. Use pieces so small that 30 or 40 will not appreciably reduce the animal’s hunger. As soon as the dog eats pieces readily and without delay, begin to pair the cricket with the food. Sound the cricket and then toss a piece of food. Wait half a minute or so and repeat. Sound the cricket suddenly, without any preparatory movement such as reaching for food.

At this stage your subject will probably show well-marked begging behavior. It may watch you intently, perhaps jump on you, and so on. You must break up this behavior, because it will interfere with other parts of the experiment. Never sound the cricket or give food when the dog is close to you or facing you. Wait until it turns away, then reinforce. Your conditioned reinforcer will be working properly when the dog turns immediately, and approaches the spot where it receives food. Test this several times.

Wait until the dog is in a fairly unusual position, then sound the signal. Time spent in making sure the dog immediately approaches the food will later be saved manyfold.

Now, having established the noise as a reinforcer, you may begin teaching the dog. To get the feel of the technique start with some simple task, such as getting the dog to approach the handle on a low cupboard door and touch it with its nose. At first you reinforce any activity which will be part of the final completed act or approaching and touching the handle of the cupboard. The only permissible contact between you and the dog is via the cricket and the food. Do not touch the dog, talk to it, coax it, “draw its attention,” or interfere in any other way with the experiment. If your subject just sits, you may have to begin by reinforcing any movement, however slight. As soon as the dog moves, sound the cricket and give food. Remember that your reaction time is important. Try to reinforce as nearly simultaneously with the movement as possible.

After your subject has begun to move about, reinforce when it turns to the cupboard. Almost immediately you will notice a change in its behavior. It will begin to face toward the cupboard most of the time. Then begin to reinforce only when the dog moves nearer the cupboard. (If you withhold reinforcement too long at this stage, you may lose the facing response. If so, go back and pick it up.) In a very short time – perhaps a minute or two – you should have the dog standing close to the cupboard. Now begin to pay attention to its head. Reinforce any movement which brings the nose close to the handle. You will have to make special efforts now to reduce the time between the movement and the reinforcement to the very minimum. Presently the dog will touch the handle with its nose, and after reinforcement it will repeat this behavior so long as it remains hungry.

Usually it takes no more than five minutes, even for a beginner, to teach a dog this behavior. Moreover, the dog does not have to be particularly “smart” to learn it; contrary to the usual view, all normal dogs learn with about equal facility with this conditioning technique.

Before going on with other experiments test the effect of your conditioned reinforcer again two or three times. If the dog responds quickly and eats without delay you may safely continue. You should “extinguish” the response the dog has already learned, however, before teaching it another. Stop reinforcing the act of touching the cupboard handle until the dog abandons this activity.

As a second test, let us say, you want to teach the dog to lift its head in the air and turn around to the right. The general procedure is the same, but you may need some help in sharpening your observation of the behavior to be reinforced. As a guide to the height to which the dog’s [head is] to be raised, sight some horizontal line on the wall across the room. Whenever the dog, in its random movements, lifts its head above this line, reinforce immediately. You will soon see the head rising above the line [more] and more frequently. Now raise your sights slightly and reinforce when the head rises above the new level. By a series of gradual steps you can get the dog to hold its head much higher than usual. After this you begin to emphasize any turning movement in a clockwise direction [while] the head is high. Eventually the dog should execute a kind of dance. If you use available food carefully, a single session should suffice for setting up this behavior.

Having tested your ability to produce these simple responses, you [may] feel confident enough to approach a more complex assignment. Suppose you try working with a pigeon. Pigeons do not tame easily. You will probably want a cage to help control the bird, and for this you can rig up a large cardboard carton with a screen or lattice top and window in the side for observing the bird. It is much less disturbing to the bird if you watch it from below its line of vision than if you peer at it from [above]. In general keep yourself out of the experimental situation as much as possible. You may still use a cricket as a conditioned reinforcer, and feed the bird by dropping a few grains of pigeon food into a small dish through a hole in the wall. It may take several daily feedings to get the bird readily [eating] and to respond quickly to the cricket.

Your assignment is to teach the pigeon to identify the visual patterns on playing cards. To begin with, hang a single card on a nail on the wall of the cage a few inches above the floor so that the pigeon can easily peck it. After you have trained the bird to peck the card by reinforcing the movements which lead to that end, change the card and again reinforce the peck. If you shuffle the cards and present them at random, the pigeon will learn to peck any card offered.

Now begin to teach it to discriminate among the cards. Let us say [you start by] using diamonds and clubs (excluding face cards and aces) and want the bird to select diamonds. Reinforce only when the card presented is a diamond, never when it is a club. Almost immediately the bird will begin to show a preference for diamonds. You can speed up its progress toward complete rejection of clubs by discontinuing the experiment for a moment (a mild form of punishment) whenever it pecks a club. A good conditioned punishment is simply to turn off the light [“blacking out”] or cover or remove the card. After half a minute replace the card or turn on the light and continue the experiment. Under these conditions the response [which] is positively reinforced with food remains part of the repertoire of the bird, while the response which leads to a blackout quickly disappears.

There is an amusing variation of this experiment by which you can make it appear that a pigeon can be taught to read. You simply use two printed cards bearing the words PECK and DON’T PECK, respectively. By reinforcing responses to PECK and blacking out when the bird pecks DON’T PECK, it is quite easy to train the bird to obey the commands on the cards.

The pigeon can also be taught the somewhat more “intellectual” performance of matching a sample object. Let us say the sample to be matched is a certain card. Fasten three cards to a board, with one above and the two others side by side just below it. The board is placed so that the bird can reach all the cards through windows cut in the side of the cage. After training the bird to peck a card of any kind impartially in all three positions, present the three chosen cards. The sample to be matched, say the three of diamonds, is at the top, and below it put a three of diamonds and a three of clubs. If the bird pecks the sample three of diamonds at the top, do nothing. If it pecks the matching three of diamonds below, reinforce it; if it pecks the three of clubs, black out. After each correct response and reinforcement, switch the positions of the two lower cards. The pigeon should soon match the sample each time. Conversely, it can also be taught to select the card which does not match the sample. It is important to reinforce correct choices immediately. Your own behavior must be letter-perfect if you are to expect perfection from your subject. The task can be made easier if the pigeon is conditioned to peck the sample card before you begin to train it to match the sample.

In a more elaborate variation of this experiment we have found it possible to make a pigeon choose among four words so that it appears to “name the suit” of the sample card. You prepare four cards about the size of small calling cards, each bearing in block letters the name of a suit: SPADES, HEARTS, DIAMONDS, and CLUBS. Fasten these side by side in a row and teach the pigeon to peck them by reinforcing in the usual way. Now arrange a sample playing card just above them. Cover the name cards and reinforce the pigeon a few times for pecking the sample. Now present, say, the three of diamonds as the sample. When the pigeon pecks it, immediately uncover the name cards If the pigeon pecks DIAMONDS, reinforce instantly. If it pecks a wrong name instead, black out for half a minute and then resume the experiment with the three of diamonds still in place and the name cards covered. After a correct choice, change the sample card to a different suit while the pigeon is eating. Always keep the names covered until the sample card has been pecked. Within a short time you should have the bird following the full sequence of pecking the sample and then the appropriate name card. As time passes the correct name will be pecked more and more frequently and, if you do not too often reinforce wrong responses or neglect to reinforce right ones, the pigeon should soon become letter-perfect.

A toy piano offers interesting possibilities for performances of a more artistic nature. Reinforce any movement of the pigeon that leads toward its pressing a key. Then, by using reinforcements and blackouts appropriately, narrow the response to a given key. Then build up a two-note sequence [by] reinforcing only when the sequence has been completed and by blacking out when any other combination of keys is struck. The two-note sequence will quickly emerge. Other notes may then be added. Pigeons, chickens, small dogs, and cats have been taught in this way to play tunes of four or five notes. The situation soon becomes too complicated, however, for the casual experimenter. You will find it difficult to control the tempo, and the reinforcing contingencies become very complex. The limit of such an experiment is determined as much by the experimenter’s skill as by that of the animal. In the laboratory we have been able to provide assistance to the experimenter by setting up complicated devices which always reinforce consistently and avoid exhaustion of the experimenter’s patience.

The increased precision of the laboratory also makes it possible to guarantee performance up to the point of almost complete certainty. When relevant conditions have been controlled, the behavior of the organism is fully determined. Behavior may be sustained in full strength for many hours by utilizing different schedules of reinforcement. Some of these correspond to the contingencies established in industry in daily wages or in piece-work pay; others resemble the subtle but powerful contingencies of gambling devices, which are notorious for their ability to command sustained behavior.

The human baby is an excellent subject in experiments of the kind described here. You will not need to interfere with feeding schedules or create any other state of deprivation, because the human infant can be reinforced by very trivial environmental events; it does not need such reward as food. Almost any “feedback” from the environment is reinforcing if it is not too intense. A crumpled newspaper, a pan and a spoon, or any convenient noisemaker quickly generates appropriate behavior, [often] amusing in its violence. The baby’s rattle is based upon this principle.

One reinforcer to which babies often respond is the flashing on and off of a table lamp. Select some arbitrary response – for example, lifting the hand. Whenever the baby lifts its hand, flash the light. In a short time a well-defined response will be generated. (Human babies are just as “smart” as dogs or pigeons in this respect.) Incidentally, the baby will enjoy the experiment.

The same principle is at work in the behavior of older children and adults. Important among human reinforcements are those aspects of the behavior of others, often very subtle, which we call “attention,” “approval” and “affection.” Behavior which is successful in achieving these reinforcements may come to dominate the repertoire of the individual.

All this may be easily used – and just as easily misused – in our relations with other people. To the reader who is anxious to advance to the human subject a word of caution is in order. Reinforcement is only one of the procedures through which we alter behavior. To use it, we must build up some degree of deprivation or at least permit a deprivation to prevail which it is within our power to reduce. We must embark upon a program in which we sometimes apply relevant reinforcement and sometimes withhold it. In doing this, we are quite likely to generate emotional effects. Unfortunately the science of behavior is not yet as successful in controlling emotion as it is in shaping practical behavior.

A scientific analysis can, however, bring about a better understanding of personal relations. We are almost always reinforcing the behavior of others, whether we mean to be or not. A familiar problem is that of the child who seems to take an almost pathological delight in annoying its parents. In many cases this is the result of conditioning which is very similar to the animal training we have discussed. The attention, approval, and affection which a mother gives a child are all extremely powerful reinforcements. Any behavior of the child which produces these consequences is likely to be strengthened. The mother may unwittingly promote the very behavior she does not want. For example, when she is busy she is likely not to respond to a call or request made in a quiet tone of voice. She may answer the child only when it raises its voice. The average intensity of the child’s vocal behavior therefore moves up to another level – precisely as the head of the dog in our experiment was raised to a new height. Eventually the mother gets used to this level and again reinforces only louder instances. This vicious circle brings about louder and louder behavior. The child’s voice may also vary in intonation, and any change in the direction of unpleasantness is more likely to get the attention of the mother and is therefore strengthened. One might even say that “annoying” behavior is just that behavior which is especially effective in arousing another person to action. The mother behaves, in fact, as if she had been given the assignment of teaching the child to be annoying! The remedy in such a case is simply for the mother to make sure she responds with attention and affection to most if not all the responses of the child which are of acceptable intensity and tone of voice and that she never reinforces the annoying forms of behavior.

Published in Scientific American, December 1951. Vol. 423 of Scientific American Reprints.