Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Classical Conditioning

Many types of dog training methods overlap or work in conjunction with one another. And while you might understand the overall concept, it's important to know each type of training and how it works in order to better understand and utilize them. In this article I describe classical condotioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning.

Pavlov Stumbles on Classical Conditioning
Many of us know who Ivan Pavlov was, and that he is best known for conditioning dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell. What many people don't know is his original experiment with the dogs had nothing to do with behavior; rather he was testing their saliva and how its chemistry changed in the presence of food.

In his testing, he noticed the dogs began salivating at the sight of the lab assistants (who gave them food) before any food was actually present.

What he'd inadvertently done was teach the dogs that lab assistants = food. A dog's natural, reflexive response to the sight of food is salivation, therefore upon seeing the lab assistants the dogs would salivate in anticipation of the food they knew would follow.

Pavlov also used bells to call the dogs to their food, thus resulting in the conditioned response (salivation) to a previously neutral stimulus (the bell).

What is Classical Conditioning?
Classical Conditioning is the associative linking of stimuli which trigger reflexive responses to previously neutral stimuli which did not elicit the reflexive response. This differs from operant conditioning in that it deals with innate responses; not behaviors.

  • Unconditioned Stimulus (US): consistently triggers a reflexive (unconditioned) response
  • Unconditioned Response (UR): reflexive response triggered by an unconditioned stimulus
  • Conditioned Stimulus (CS): a neutral stimulus which produces no reflexive response
  • Conditioned Response (CR): the reflexive response (previously unconditioned) triggered by a conditioned stimulus

Specifically, this type of associative learning pairs CS with US in order to trigger the reflexive response (which therefore becomes conditioned) from the CS. Let's look at an example using Pavlov's dogs and the bell.

Pavlov rang a bell to call the dogs to dinner. Of course he saw that the presentation of food (US) stimulated the dogs into salivating (UR). This response is reflexive, or involuntary, and was a result of the dog's body preparing to receive food.

Then he began to notice that whenever he rang the bell (CS) the dogs would salivate (CS). Because of the constant pairing of the bell (previously a neutral stimulus) with the food (an unconditioned stimulus), the dogs learned to associate the two as equal.


Food (US) --------------------> Salivation (UR)

After repeated pairing of Bell & Food:

Bell (CS) -------------------> Salivation (UR becomes CR)

So, how can you utilize classical conditioning as a training tool for dogs since it doesn't deal with behaviors, only reflexive responses?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Classical Conditioning to Train Dogs

How Do I Use Classical Conditioning to Train My Dog?

Clicker Training
Trainers who use clicker training are actually using classical conditioning. When a trainer wishes to start clicker training a dog, first the dog needs to be taught the significance of the clicker. The clicker actually marks the moment of desired behavior. In order to create the association in the dog's mind, the trainer begins by clicking and then treating the dog ("treating" can be food, play, or anything else the dog is motivated to have). This is repeated until the dog learns the association between clicker and the positive outcome.

I've also read several accounts that mention reversal of reflexive behaviors can be trained utilizing classical conditioning. This involves changing something the dog views as "negative" and turning it into a "positive." An example would be a dog which is afraid of loud noises, such as fireworks. In this case, the trainer would start with the dog far removed from the firecrackers but the dog would still be able to barely hear them. At the same time the noise starts the trainer begins feeding the dog his favorite treat. The idea is to gradually wean the dog away from his fearful reaction to fireworks by associating their loud noises with something the dog thinks of as positive. This is called counterconditioning.

This is related to counterconditioning and involves repeatedly subjecting the dog to a stimulus until they become desensitized to it. By counterconditioning - creating a positive emotion from a previously negative one - the trainer is actually desensitizing the dog to it at the same time.

These instances might seem counterintuitive to the "standard" definition of classical conditioning. To recap, the standard definition of this training method states that you associate a previously neutral stimulus (which elicits no emotional/reflexive reaction) with a stimulus of some significance (which elicits an emotional/reflexive reaction).

In other words, Pavlov consistently rang the bell to call his dogs to eat; therefore the dogs associated the ringing of the bell (previously a neutral stimulus) with food. Upon hearing the bell, the dogs would then salivate (a natural, reflexive response to food).

All of the aforementioned instances are, indeed, examples of classical conditioning. There are many trainers who argue that classical conditioning only deals with innate, reflexive actions - i.e., actions over which you have no control - such as an eye blinking in response to air being blown into it.

As it turns out, classical conditioning is merely the association of stimuli. A stimulus, of course, is "An agent, action, or condition that elicits or accelerates a physiological or psychological activity or response." A "response" in this case can actually signify "emotion," too. Another way to look at it is to compare this method with operant conditioning.

In operant conditioning, the consequence - either positive or negative - is based on the dog's behavior. In classical conditioning, the dog's behavior has no bearing on the outcome.

Using Operant Conditioning for Dog Training

There are numerous methods utilized today for dog training - but which one(s) should you use to train your own canine?

What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior through the use of consequences (reinforcers and punishers). Although there are arguments against this, operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that it deals with changing operant behavior (or 'voluntary' behavior) versus reflexive behavior ('involuntary' behavior). That being said, whenever you're dealing with changing behaviors, operant and classical conditioning can work hand-in-hand.

Operant conditioning has two main tools for modifying behavior - reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcers increase behavior, while punishers decrease a behavior. These operate in two contexts - positive and negative. In this case, positive refers to addition; negative refers to subtraction.

B.F. Skinner was the "Pavlov" of operant conditioning, and actually outlined a third tool - extinction - which is the lack of any consequence. Though it might seem like doing nothing couldn't be an effective training method, it can actually produce results when used correctly.

Positive Reinforcement
An important thing to keep in mind when considering which of these tools to utilize is the long-term effects each can have on your dog. Positive reinforcement is - in my opinion - the strongest teaching tool - not only does it focus on increasing positive behavior; it teaches the dog to want to work with his owner and continue learning and trying.

The basic premise of positive reinforcement is: dog performs behavior, dog gets rewarded. The dog learns - at first - "every time I do this, I get THIS." After a desired behavior is consistently occurring, then the trainer will begin to decrease payment of the behavior, only focusing on the dog's best performances. This encourages the dog to try his best each and every time, since he only gets paid for his best endeavors.

Once a behavior is learned, the dog is only paid intermittently. He's not quite sure when he'll get paid, so once again, he is going to offer his best effort all the time. This form of intermittent reinforcement is often where most trainers who teach clicker training fail to understand the implications of operant conditioning. They teach their trainers to use treats and pay their dog for every single occurrence of behavior. This actually creates a dog who doesn't perform very well; since he's never pushed to give his best, he gets treated regardless of performance and often these dogs are lazy, don't perform behaviors on cue and tend to get lackadaisical about working with their trainers.

Negative Punishment
Negative punishment is also a strong tool to decrease unwanted behavior, since this method focuses on the removal of a desired reward when an unwanted behavior occurs. Trained consistently, the dog will learn whenever she offers a certain behavior, she loses something she's very motivated to have - i.e., a treat, a toy, another behavior (such as going outside, going for a walk, etc.). Other examples would be a dog gets overly excited while being petted, so the person ignores the dog until she settles and then continues petting; or a very a high prey-drive dog not being allowed to play fetch unless she displays the correct behavior. Fetch in this case is not only a game; it can be a very strong teaching tool. Of course, all dogs are different and are motivated - at different times - by different things. You need to choose the best motivator for your own dog in order to truly see results.

Negative Reinforcement
While the concept of training through negative reinforcement may seem counter-intuitive to positive methods, it can actually be a strong tool. Keep in mind 'negative' in this sense doesn't carry an emotional connotation. Negative reinforcement is the increase in desired behavior caused by the removal of an unwanted stimulus.

An example of negative reinforcement would be teaching a dog to respond to touch. If you place your hand on your dog's side and push, eventually he'll move away from the pressure. You're not hurting the dog, but pressure can actually be an adverse stimulus. When the dog moves away, you remove the pressure. This is how horses are trained to move while being ridden - it's called 'leg aiding' and applies the very theory of negatively reinforcing the horse for moving away from a rider's leg when pressure is applied.

Positive Punishment
There are many reasons I don't utilize this type of training with dogs - mainly because with this method you're merely telling the dog "don't do that!" Instead of empowering her with what she should or could be doing, you're focusing on one thing she shouldn't be doing.

In other words, dogs are always doing something, and if you use this method of training, you won't get very far, since it's a major trial-and-error to teach them the things you don't want them to do. That is, the communication focuses on an undesired stimulus (to the dog) such as a shock collar, a yell, even hitting the dog when she offers an undesired behavior (to the human). Even if you use positive punishment in conjunction with the other methods, another consequence from using this type of training occurs: your dog learns to be afraid to try new behaviors. This is because (through intermittent reinforcement) she doesn't know when she'll receive a shock (or other adverse stimulus) for a new behavior.

What you have, in effect, is a dog who doesn't entirely trust you - or herself.

Extinction is the lack of consequence after a behavior. This can be utilized by a trainer to decrease behaviors. When a behavior consistently produces no consequence, that behavior will occur with less and less frequency. Keep in mind the dog has to be accustomed to the 'rule': desired behavior results in reward.

However, you might have heard of an "extinction burst." This refers to the dog taking more action in order to gain the desired consequence. For example, when free shaping a dog, you'd start by paying the slightest increments, and once the dog is offering the first increment consistently, you don't pay him the next time. The dog knows this behavior has paid before, so what he'll do is try harder to gain the consequence.

Of course, as mentioned before, if the dog never gets paid for the behavior, he will slowly stop offering the behavior, since there is no gain in performing it.

Remember, whichever method you decide to use, don't forget to have fun!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Keep Your Dog Busy with a Kong

If you have a high energy dog, you're on the constant lookout for "busy" activities to keep your pooch occupied. One of the best inventions in the history of dog toys is the rubber Kong. Not only is it virtually indestructible (even for extreme chewers), it's also ideal for keeping your dog busy.

Kongs come in a variety of types, and while all of these toys are excellent in durability, the one we're highlighting here is the classic Kong toy for dogs. This comes in various sizes, as well as models for extreme chewers, puppies and senior dogs.

While you can certainly give a Kong to a dog to play fetch or merely chew on, the true capabilities of this rubber toy are best utilized with treats.

All dogs have "food drive" – meaning all dogs eat, and at some point are food motivated – plus they also have the need to "work," or keep themselves busy. This means for those dogs left home during the day the hours draw out and they might find amusement in chewing on items they're not supposed to. Of course, exercising your dog properly is always the first and foremost "remedy." But, even with abundant exercise, some dogs still need a lot of mental stimulation.

Enter the Kong. Before you leave for the day, stuff your dog's Kong with treats - hard ones work well since they're harder to extricate than softer varieties. Your dog will have to work with his tongue and teeth in order to get all the treats out, which can take quite a long time. The mental stimulation factor is when the dog learns to drop the Kong in order to make treats fall out – it's also fun to see the "a-ha" moment when Fido realizes dropping it down the stairs works well!

An even better way to keep your dog occupied is to use peanut butter and freeze the Kong. This is a safe and effective way to keep your dog occupied - sometimes for hours!

Another great treat dispenser is the molecuball. While you shouldn't ever freeze food in this toy, it's excellent for dispensing small treats or dog food slowly, so can be used to feed a dog – either to keep it busy or to help with dogs who wolf their food too quickly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frozen Kongs

Kong, Squirrel Dude & Other Rubber Toys Filled with Peanut Butter How many times have we felt guilty leaving our dogs home alone all day while we're at work? Conversely, how often have you come home to a house that's been "re-arranged," chewed or destroyed by your frustrated, energetic dog?

While rigorous exercise should always be the first thing you try to keep your dog out of trouble – the old adage "a tired dog is a good dog" is absolutely true! – there are other things you can try to keep your dog busy.

The Kong is a great toy for this. Its tough rubber make-up makes it virtually indestructible (even for extreme chewers), and depending on the model, it can keep your dog busy for hours. There are also other durable, rubber toys – such as the Squirrel Dude Rubber Chew Toy, Chompion Dumbbell, Atomic Treat Ball and Premier Chuckle from Busy Buddy – which are great for stuffing with treats.

You can stuff the Kong with treats to give your dog something to do, or you can take it one step further and freeze treats inside of it for hours of play. The Kong Company does sell freeze-able treats, but you can use 'human' foods to freeze for your pet, as well. Of course, before giving anything to your dog outside of his natural diet, you should consult your veterinarian.

Some foods that work well for freezing inside the Kong are:

  • Peanut butter
  • Cheese (either softened or cottage cheese)
  • Oatmeal
  • Broth (chicken, beef, etc.)
  • Honey
  • Canned dog food
  • Yogurt
  • Applesauce
  • There are many, many more – get creative! But remember, check with your vet first.
When preparing a Kong for your dog, you can simply fill the Kong with whichever substance you choose, or you can add other treats in amidst the filling (dog treats, as well as veggies or fruit). Of course, this is easiest with the more solid food listed above. Keep in mind any treat dispenser – not necessarily from the Kong Company – can be used for this purpose, but if they're not made specifically to allow a dog's tongue inside, they might keep your dog busy but the dog might not be able to access all of the food. This will result in a very smelly treat and – sometimes – a very frustrated dog!

To freeze a Kong, fill the Kong to the top using a butter knife for the "solid" foods (to reach down into the Kong). Put the Kong in a baggie and place in the freezer. You'll want to allow a couple hours for the cheese, peanut butter, or other semi-solid food to fully freeze.

For the liquid-type foods, you can plug the bottom, smaller hole in the Kong with a soft treat (or something else that's tasty, easily squashed yet solid), place the Kong with large hole facing up in a glass or bowl, and fill to the top with broth, honey or any other liquid.

Carefully place in the freezer, and again leave it in there for a couple hours to ensure it's all frozen through.

You can also get a Kong large enough to furnish your dog's kibble meal, and freeze the entire amount of dry dog food inside the Kong with broth, peanut butter or whichever substance you choose. Keep in mind, the added calories from the frozen substance will add to your dog's meal, so you can probably decrease the amount of dog food. This will ensure your dog not only gets fed; she'll keep busy while eating.

Another idea for making your dog work for food – if you don't have time or don't need to use a frozen Kong – is to use a Molecuball (also known as the Atomic Treat Ball). This isn't recommended for freezing liquids, as the hole is much too small to allow a dog's tongue, but it's great for dispensing dog food or small treats slowly. It also forces the dog to work for his food, as the only way the dog treats or food dispenses is if the dog moves the molecule with his nose or paws.

The bottom line is: anything that helps in making your dog a tired dog also makes her a good dog!

A Very Tired Dog is a Very Good Dog!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Potty Training With Puppy Pads

Using Puppy Pads / Newspapers when Potty Training
While this method of potty training might work best in an apartment setting - to a puppy, those long hallways and stairwells are a long time to hold it! - it can have repercussions. Puppies who are potty trained this way are in essence trained to urinate and defecate in the house. House training can also take longer with this method, as the clear lines of "yes, you can potty here" and "no, don't potty here" are blurred. To a puppy, inside is inside - they won't understand the difference at first.

Puppy pads are most likely preferable to use instead of newspapers, as they are specifically engineered for this purpose. They come in all kinds:

  • scented with pheromones (and/or cut grass)
  • wetness protection (absorbency)
  • leak protection
  • odor control
  • reusable
  • disposable
Newspapers, on the other hand, are free...but, beware, they're not very absorbent.

To use this housebreaking technique, place the pad or newspapers in a designated area. Whenever your puppy changes his activity (wakes up, starts to play, finishes eating, etc.), pick him up and walk him over to the puppy pad and place him on it. If he moves off the pad, gently place him back on it. Be sure to praise him mightily when he does do his deed!

When puppy starts getting the hang of using the pad for going potty, it's time to start moving it closer to the door. The goal is to eventually get the dog to get used to going outdoors - at first on a pad, but then eventually you would wean them off the pads (inside or outside) altogether.

Crate Training a Puppy

Using a Crate to Potty Train Your Pup

The methods for potty training a puppy are numerous, but a very popular way to housebreak your puppy is to crate train him. This method uses the principle that dogs do not like to lie in their own mess. This isn’t a foolproof method, however, as sick dogs will evacuate their bowels/stomachs regardless of where they are, and if left alone too long, small puppies physically can't hold it. But of course, generally speaking, dogs do not like to urinate/defecate in the area in which they sleep.

Crate training is a good method for potty training when you're at work, or busy elsewhere in the house...if you can't watch the puppy, put him in his crate. When you're home and able to watch the puppy, then you can use your constant supervision method.

Crate training is easiest with a crate that’s adjustable, because as the puppy grows you’ll need to accommodate for size. When potty training your pup with the crate, it's extremely important you don't leave them too much space. If you put a tiny puppy in a big crate, you’ll end up with a puppy who’ll mess on one side of the crate and play/sleep in the other and never learn the importance of holding their bladder or bowels. Again, keep in mind that very small puppies physically cannot hold their bladders/bowels as long as older pups or adult dogs, so this will work best if you’re able to let the pup out at intervals throughout the day.

Dogs are Den Animals...So Using a Crate is Reinforcing!
Dogs are “den” animals who like a safe, secure place to sleep, so using a crate throughout the life of the dog is actually reinforcing. If you know you're going to continue to utilize a crate into the dog's adult life, the purchase of a large crate makes the most sense economically. Even though they're inherently den-dwelling animals, sometimes the hardest part about crate training is trying to get a scared puppy into the crate in the first place.

The trick when potty-training with a crate is to give your puppy only enough room to stand up and turn around. This might sound cruel, but keep in mind that puppies are continuously growing – they’re going to spend the majority of their day sleeping anyway. By leaving the pup with a minimum of space, you’re “ensuring” that they will hold it as long as they can, because if they mess, they have to lay in it.

Types of Crates
If you do purchase a large crate, you’ll have to either a) find a model which comes with a divider, or b) place some sort of barrier within the crate (which is neither chewable nor movable) to block the pup into a smaller space. Crates that have solid sides are good, but the majority of the time, they’re not adjustable.

Another option is a collapsible wire crate. Not only are they easily toted to other places but they come with a separator which can be moved as needed. Keep in mind that these crates aren’t the typical “den” crates, since they’re made of wire. Also, if the puppy does mess inside, it can leak out the sides and / or you can end up with excrement in the corners of the wire cage – MUCH harder to clean!

Housebreaking With a Crate
Remember, consistency is a must when potty training a puppy. Be sure to bring your pup outside for a potty break right before you put him into the crate. Immediately when you let him out of the crate, take him out again. With very small puppies, the best way to do this successfully is to carry the pup. If they really need to go, they might not be able to hold it until they're outside!

Other than the obvious reasons, the crate training method is wonderful because it teaches the puppy that yes, they can hold it if they have to urinate / defecate. For the first several weeks of their life, whenever the barest urge to go hit them, they'd evacuate. The crate teaches them they're capable of holding off for a bit longer.

Other than remaining consistent - and keeping your puppy on a schedule, if at all possible - you need a lot of patience when potty training a puppy. Some puppies will "get it" right away, while others might struggle with the concept. Stay positive, and you'll get great results!

Potty Training a Puppy

Constant Supervision: Timing & Consistency

In order to do any type of dog training – potty training, obedience, behavior, etc. – you need to focus on 2 very key points: timing and consistency. I would get frustrated when potty-training my first dog because, “she’s not being consistent with her signals”…when in reality it was I who was not consistent! The dog takes its cue from you, its leader. So if you're not consistent, your training won't proceed smoothly.

Also, timing is important because dogs cannot distinguish 2 seconds ago from 2 minutes / hours ago. So, if you turn around and the dog’s already done its deed, there is no use in correcting the behavior because it’s already in the past. IF, however, you catch the dog in the act, then you can take steps to correct it.

Conversely, if your puppy does what he's supposed to, praise him immediately! Don't let the only thing he hears from you be "No!"

How Do I Know When to Take My Puppy Out?
After knowing that timing and consistency are your weapons for housebreaking your dog, the next step is to know when to take your puppy out to do his deed. This is simple: Any change in activity should prompt you to take the pup outside (or to the designated area if you're using puppy pads). This means whenever the puppy wakes up, gets done eating, finishes playing, etc., they’ll need to be taken out. They won’t always have to go, but chances are – especially the younger the puppy – the majority of the time they’ll at least have to urinate when you take them out. Increased activity will increase the urge to urinate/defecate, so if the pup is outside and you think they might have to go, play fetch for a few minutes or romp around with them.

Keep in mind your young puppy’s bladder is very small, so they won’t physically be able to hold it as long as an older puppy or an adult dog (another reason they need to be taken out constantly). The older they get (plus, the more they understand that creating a mess in the house is unacceptable) the longer they’ll be able to go without being let outside. The “basic” rule of thumb with puppies is for every month in the age of your pup, add 1 and that’s how many hours they can hold it. For example, if your puppy is 4 months old, they “should” be able to hold it for 5 hours. This really doesn’t apply for very young pups, and of course all dogs are different.

Also, this method works wonderfully - when you're home! If you can't watch the dog constantly, another method which can be utilized is crate training.

What Do I Do If I Catch My Puppy In the Act?
So, what do you do if your puppy makes a mess in the house (or in the non-designated area, for apartment-dwellers)? Again, do NOT attempt to “correct” the problem after it’s already happened – it’s only a frustrating experience for you and the puppy since she won’t know why she’s being punished.

You must watch puppies constantly when potty training, and literally follow them around – even if they’ve recently gone outside – because, well, they’re puppies! For the first 8 weeks of their life they evacuate wherever they want and their mother cleans up after them. So, if you notice your pup in a squat (and/or actually peeing/pooping), make a sharp noise (try not to make it too frightening) to not only get the pup’s attention but make it “clamp” and stop messing. Then calmly pick up the puppy and head outside with him. Once there, put the pup down and, once he finishes his duty, praise him with a treat (or by throwing a ball, etc). If the pup doesn’t immediately finish with his duties, you can prompt him to do so by playing with him, making him run, etc – again, going back to the idea that changes in activity often prompt the urge to urinate/defecate.

Some people believe that upon finding the pup messing in the house, the best way to stop the behavior is to rub the pup’s nose in her mess; another method hails to shaking the pup (like her mother would if she was misbehaving), say “NO!” and then take her outside to finish. If a method works for you, it works – I’ve heard many theories on the best practices for housebreaking dogs. In my opinion, though, the best methods for any type of training revolve around positive reinforcement, versus positive punishment.

Eventually, if you're consistent with timing, you'll realize you're worrying less and less about where the puppy is...until one day it will literally "click" and you'll have a potty-trained dog!

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