Friday, January 28, 2011

Smart reinforcement

I spent last weekend studying animal behavior with the best trainers in the world, who convened in Newport Beach for Clicker Expo 2011.  Fellow trainer and friend Stacy Braslau-Schneck and I attended several seminars by Ken Ramirez, one of which discussed the nuances of reinforcement and how to use it to its fullest potential (to help our dogs reach THEIR fullest potential!).  It was wonderful, and I was delighted to see that Stacy later summarized the session.  Here is a short excerpt:

All animals have some interest in the “primary” reinforcers that ensure survival and comfort: food, water, air, shelter, and mating opportunities. These are so powerful that many trainers just rely on them (mostly food), and never bother trying to introduce newer forms of rewards. However, there can be a huge advantage to having a variety of rewards. It adds variability to your training, keeping it more interesting; it is also there as a fallback when your animal is not interested in one of those primaries (for example, if your dog is sick or even just full, and not interested in food) or they are not available to you

Read the whole post (it's good!) here

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Bella" is the top dog name of 2010

Call it the "Twilight Effect." In 2010 "Bella" retained its position as the most popular dog name for the second year in a row. Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPI), the nation's oldest and largest provider of pet health insurance, sorted its database of more than 485,000 insured pets to determine last year's most popular pet names. Here's the top ten for dogs:


1. Bella
2. Bailey
3. Max
4. Lucy
5. Molly
6. Buddy
7. Maggie
8. Daisy
9. Charlie
10. Sophie

Of the nearly half a million pets insured by VPI, only 13 were named "Fido," reflecting the current trend of owners giving their pets human names. Nearly every dog name on VPI's Top Ten Pet Names list doubles as a popular human name.  But some where truly wacky.  Here is the list of their top 50 whacky dog names (I laughed pretty hard).

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I guess I need a "Tell Bell" after all....

I love this little "service counter bell" that one of my clients has, which her dog would ring in order to ask to be taken outside to potty.  (My dogs were taught to ring some jingle bells).  The bell sits on the floor by the door, which avoids the issue of the jingle bells ringing every time the door is opened or shut.  I cleverly thought I could avoid the roughly $25 cost of the "Tell Bell" by buying a $5 service bell from Office Depot and super-gluing a fabric button onto it to give the dog a larger spot for his paw to hit (the normal service bell has a very small button to push and I suspected my dogs would object to pressing it with their paws). 

After much struggling with it, I have given up because the surface area of the little button isn't large enough for me to get the glue to stick.  The Tell Bell has been made with a larger button to push (and it has a cute paw on it).  So I am recommending it for my clients who would like to teach their dogs to ring something to ask for a human to open the door.

You can teach this behavior using "target training".  You teach the dog to ring the bell to get a treat.  Then you can use "back chaining" to create the sequence of  (ring bell) (human opens door) (run to potty area and do your business) (click/treat).

The toughest part of this sequence is getting the dog to not ring the bell just to be able to engage you in training.  In other words, they sometimes lie and make you go through the routine even when they don't have to go outside.  If I feel I've been faked out, I just calmly go back inside (ie, no click/treat).  But I'm generous in nurturing the behavior until it's very solid-- in other words, I allow myself to be taken advantage of until the very advanced stage.  I'd rather err on the side of being asked to open the door than have to clean up an accident.