Friday, August 12, 2011

When a potential client isn't a good match

I received a call the other day from a very nice woman seeking my private dog training services for her new puppy.  After talking a bit I learned that they keep the pup outside all the time and make it sleep in a crate in the garage.  It's never allowed in the house. 

I was immediately concerned, and after talking about this with her I decided to refer her to another trainer.  There's nothing criminal in her decision but this is not close enough to my philosophy about dogs to make it likely that taking her on as a client would have the kind of outcome I seek with my clients.  I was very polite about it, and referred her to another very good trainer who was delighted to get the referral. 

The truth is that there's a bit of an art in finding the right fit between training instructor and student.  My ideal client is a smart, fairly well educated person who is interested in having a very close relationship with their dog (which to me means having the dog be an integral part of the family, living in the house), and who has high aspirations for their dog's behavior. 

I think we trainers sometimes look for clients who are just like ourselves.  I know that's not realistic.  But my heart sings when I meet someone who follows through with my reading recommentations, and who catches that spark of enthusiasm about operant conditioning and what it can do for their life with their dog. 

In my case, I'm on a hiatus from teaching classes (which I'm quite sad about, but I am leading a large software implementation project and am working 13+ hours a day, so cannot commit to the time and energy it takes to run a dog training class right now the way I like to run them!).  What little time I do have for teaching is limited to private clients.  So I do have to ensure that each client is a really good fit before agreeing to start working together. 

This need to be clear on the ideal client profile is true of all professional service providers.  Physicians, attorneys, CPAs, contractors... they all have a certain profile of client that they just love working with.  These kind of partnerships literally glow with success.

I'm happy to refer clients to other trainers when I'm either too busy to help them or if I suspect we may not be the best fit for each other.  My priority is to ensure that they are still referred to a competent clicker training instructor, not someone who's going to recommend a choke chain or prong collar. 

I cherish my clients, and literally consider myself their lifelong dog coach.  I pour myself into them, and get a sense of joy and satisfaction from their success that is difficult to describe. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What you need to know about classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is a basic concept in training so let's look at it for a few minutes.

Below is a rather humorous video showing a college psychology student demonstrating the use of classical conditioning on his roomate. He is using it DIFFERENTLY than we are, he is using it to establish that a sound means that the roomate is about to be shot with an air pellet. Warped, I know. But the demo is clear.

Classical conditioning happens in our world (and our dog's world) whether we like it or not. It answers the question, "What is predictable in my world?". When we pick up the leash, it means we're going for a walk. When we open the container where we keep the dog food, it means its supper time. These are all associations the dog makes through repetition. We present a neutral or meaningless signal (the click) prior to the delivery of the treat, and after enough reps of this the dog comes to expect the treat as soon as he hears the click. See how the sequence is important? First the click and then the treat.

You know how your dog learns to anticipate things? You pick up your car keys and he runs to the front door? This is classical conditioning. He's come to associate your keys with the door opening.

With clicker training, we click, and then we deliver a reward.  The "conditioned response" on the part of the dog is the EXPECTATION of the reward arriving, and the happy feeling that goes with that.  The response we conditioned there was one of anticipation of the reward.  (In Pavlov's dogs, the anticipation of that reward also resulted in an automatic salivating response, so in their case the salivating also became part of the conditioned response).

This is useful in that we can click at the moment of good behavior, and instantly elicit that feeling of "reward coming!" in the dog.  THEN we give the reward.  This allows us to tie that happy feeling with the exact moment of good behavior, which then allows us to work at a distance from our dog.  In other words, it buys us a moment or two before we have to actually pay up!  But it still cemented that FEELING of the reward with the exact moment of good behavior.  This kind of laser-beam timing helps us shape behaviors very specifically.

Different behaviors or "conditioned responses" take different amounts of time (and repetitions) to condition.  Some happen quickly with just a few reps, and some take hundreds of reps.  It helps to create a nondistracting environment when you intentional create a classically conditioned response-- that way the signal and the event that happens next are easily identified and connected in the subject's mind. 

Imagine if you were at a noisy dance club, and suddenly you felt a drop of water on your forehead.  What happened right before that?  Was it a particular note of music?  A particular dance move nearby?  A flashing light in the club?  Who knows?  There's too much going on.  But if you were in a quiet empty dance club and a light flashed and then you felt the drop of water, and that happened 5 times in a row, you'd understand the connection much faster.  You have to be able to identify those two events in connection with each other.  If the environment is too distracting, it's hard to isolate the events in your mind enough to identify them as being connected.

Think of this when you're trying to give your dog a cue.  Pay close attention to your body language-- beginner trainers often have (unintentionally!) sloppy body language and they THINK they are giving a clear cue but their cue is inconsistent.  (This is where it really helps to have a trained eye watching you and giving you feedback-- or videotape yourself on your digital camera and play it back to see what you're REALLY doing). 

It can be a little stressful for an animal (or a human) when they suspect there is a pattern but they are having trouble identifying what it is.  It is a relief and a comfort when we make classical conditioning easy by making the first and the second event very clear and very easy to connect. 

One very cool application of classical conditioning happened with a young girl who was gravely ill.  The last resort for her was a very toxic drug, and they wanted to see if they could "train" her immune system to respond as though the drug were present, without having to actually keep GIVING the drug.  They paired the drug with a strong smell and strong taste each time they gave it.  The smell and the taste were very distinct,  and were not commonly found in the child's life up to that point.  After a few reps, they gave the smell and taste again, but secretly withheld the drug.  Her immune system responded again (favorably) as though they had administered the drug.  This showed that our immune systems can be conditioned to respond favorably (or unfavorably) to external stimuli.  VERY interesting implications. (I learned of this case on PBS). 

This week, pay attention to classical conditioning and where you see it in action in your life and the lives of those around you.