Saturday, July 23, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

Anyone of my generation certainly remembers the paperback "Choose Your Own Adventure" series by R.A. Montgomery (and others) where the reader would come to a decision point: If you want to leave Suzy on the edge of the cliff and run away from the dragon guarding her turn to page 34; If you want to sacrifice yourself and get eaten by the dragon turn to page 48, etc. No, this isn't a book review - though I do remember loving those books as a child - buying the latest and greatest at the Dartmouth College bookstore and finishing most of the options by the time we arrived home 90 minutes later - this is a lesson on puppy training. A lesson for puppy trainers as well as the puppies!

 Choose your adventure is just that. A puppy - or a dog - learning that he can choose reinforcement or he can choose no reinforcement. Reinforcement could be cookies, could be attention from me (pats, praise, etc), it could be toys and interactive play or it could be freedom to go and make other choices.

A typical young puppy or early learner scenario:
I like using food for this exercise because it lends for high rate of reps in a short amount of time - you can use toys of course, but keeping sessions short you will have significantly fewer reinforcement opportunities. There's potential of course that the play reps are higher value to puppy though too.  

Start with puppy (or dog) on-leash in an environment that doesn't have a whole lot of other options (expect with a puppy that they'll find options you didn't think of though!). Trainer is equipped with moderately exciting treats (medium power) and a clicker. I generally sit on the ground (or on stairs, etc) so I'm close to puppy's level. Whenever puppy ignores other stimulus and looks at, directs attention to, engages with (etc) you - click and treat. Expect a few accidental glances, followed by checking out and exploring (but remember, puppy is on leash so he can't go too far!). When puppy checks out the trainer must not say or do anything at this point. Just wait (OK scoop the pinecone out of puppy's mouth - trading for a cookie) -  and remember that next time you play this game to scope an environment that doesn't have pinecones within your 6' radius :-). Ultimately puppy can learn that if he keeps his eyeballs on you, he can turn you into a cookie PEZ dispenser! 

Once you reach PEZ dispenser status in no distraction/low stimulus environments it's time to take the show on the road! Head off to a couple of places (or move to the other side of your driveway) and work the same attention behaviors. Remember to keep these sessions short and successful. If you get stuck with a puppy who really isn't focused on anything other than grass, bird poop, sticks, etc - back up with your goals. Get a couple of super-successes and end the session on that positive note.

The same basic game is used for shaping behaviors - offer, think, stay engaged, keep trying 'stuff' and you're going to get something. The most successful operant dogs are the ones who have figured out that try = good and mistakes = no big deal/try something else.

The Definition of operant from Miriam-Webster:
1 : functioning or tending to produce effects : effective
2 : of or relating to the observable or measurable 
3 : of, relating to, or being an operant or operant conditioning

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