Friday, October 14, 2011

What I Learned About Dog Training by Taking Piano Lessons

Several years ago, John’s mother bought him a good quality electric keyboard.  It is a really good keyboard and it has all kinds of odds n ends to make it flashy.  John liked the keyboard.  I LOVED the keyboard.  I loved the keyboard so much, that I went out and started piano lessons so that I could learn to play it.  I learned a lot of things in my music lessons that are really relevant to dog training, and I thought I would share.

If I heard it once, I must have heard it a thousand times; if you practice the wrong thing you will get really good at doing it wrong.  I head this when my husband was taking voice lessons and I heard it again when I started taking piano lessons.  Yes, practice is important but if you make the same mistake over and over again, you just make your mistake permanent. 

This is true for dog training too.  Eco and I are cleaning up our heeling right now with the intent of going into the ring in the winter to do obedience and rally-O.  We have practiced really sloppy heeling for about three years, so we have a lot of tidying to do.  It is very hard to remember that we are going back to basics because we have perfected sloppy heeling.  Now I am only asking for one good step together, but some of the time I get excited and forget and if we get one good step, I throw caution to the wind and take ten steps and by about the fifth step we are back to making the errors we are really good at making.

When we got the keyboard, I learned a very important lesson the very first day we had it.  Four hours is too long to practice the piano.  By about three hours and forty five minutes.  In fact if you practice playing the piano for four hours, you can expect your elbows to swell up, your fingers to go stiff and numb and forget fine motor activity for the next three days.  When I started piano lessons, I asked my teacher how long and how often I ought to practice.  Ten minutes twice a day she replied.  Ten minutes?  Heck I could do that between brushing my hair in the morning and eating breakfast and not even have to get up any earlier!  And I could absolutely fit it in while dinner was cooking after work. 

Dogs are a little bit like this too.  If you feel a crushing need to train for four hours a day (and who doesn’t if they are dog trainers?  Likely this isn’t true of non dog trainers!), you need more dogs.  Lots more dogs.  For most skill based behaviours, dogs work best for short periods of time.  I realized this recently when I was coaching a novice handler in a class recently.  She was trying to get one to two hours a day of practice in.  I only work my dogs for twenty to thirty minutes at a go, and they are experienced dogs.  My puppy only works for ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  Ten minutes, twice a day, until you get the hang of things is likely more than enough.  If you are working on behaviour modification for a behaviour problem, this may not hold true, but in general, keep it short and sweet.

I started piano lessons when Jean Crétien was prime minister of Canada.  His wife, Aline, began taking piano lessons in her fifties when M. Crétien was first elected as prime minister.  In fact, she began taking Royal Conservatory lessons and by the time he left office she had completed the bulk of their classes and courses.  I figured that if the wife of the prime minister could play the piano starting in her fifties, why shouldn’t I be able to start the same thing as an adult?  And maybe, if I studied long enough I could play some of the works of Mozart or Liszt, or some other classical composer I had heard of.

As a dog trainer, we should try and be aware of the movers and shakers in our field.  We should know who is suggesting new ideas and who is writing and blogging and videoing about dog training.  We should know both who is proposing innovative ideas and who is sticking with the old ways.  It is also helpful to find someone local who can mentor you and who can be a good role model for you.  Pat Miller, Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Cesar Milan, Brad Pattison, Victoria Stillwell, Suzanne Clothier, Nicholas Dodman and Susan Garrett should all be familiar names to you if you are serious about getting into the training game.

When I first took piano lessons, my teacher gave me a children’s book to learn.  The first week that I took lessons, I learned to work my fingers independently and play a simple scale.  The second week, I learned to move my fingers over one another and reach the more distant keys.  Each week I learned to play different elements of more complex pieces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the foundations of more complex work.  One day, my teacher gave me a completely new piece of music and asked me to play what I read.  To my surprise, I was able to play a fairly complex piece of music.  

This holds true in dog training.  The recall is a fine example of a complex behaviour that is made up of a series of simpler behaviours.  Your dog has to orient on his name and find you.  Then he has to disengage from whatever he is doing and come towards you.  If you want your dog to sit in front of you when he gets to you that is another simple behaviour to add to the chain.

Backchaining is the process of learning all the elements of a series of behaviours, and then rewarding the last of the behaviours and practicing the last behaviour over and over again, until you feel really confident about that.  Then you practice the second to last behaviour and the last behaviour and get your reward.  Then you practice the third to last, the second to last and the last behaviour and get your reward.  When I was learning pieces of music to play on the piano, I would backchain them all.  One day my teacher asked me to play a new piece of music that I had never seen or heard before.  I looked at the sheet music for a minute and then asked her how she wanted me to start.  From the beginning she said.  I asked if she minded if I did it a little differently the first few times through, and she asked what I wanted to do.  I explained backchaining to her and she began to laugh.  She had been in a graduate program in music before anyone had taught her that little trick, and she learned how it was that I was learning so many pieces so quickly; I just played the final bar until I was smooth and then the final two bars and so on.  My reward was hearing the music come out the way that it ought to sound.

Backchaining is a useful but seldom used method in dog training.  Especially when a dog is being asked to learn a complex sequence for competition or for service work, backchaining is highly useful.  If you want your dog to learn to fetch the paper for you, you would simply teach him all the elements of the behaviour; go to the door, wait till you open it, wait till you tell him it is safe to go and find the paper, find the paper, pick up the paper, carry the paper back to the door and then hold the paper until you tell him to give it to you.  Then when the dog knows all the elements individually, you would practice only the part where he holds the paper until you ask him for it.  Then you might leave him on a sit stay where the paper is normally delivered, walk back to the house and call him to come and then give you the paper when you ask, and then give him his reward.  After practicing this stage for a period of time, you would ask him to sit and stay at the location that the paper was delivered, and go back to the house.  Once you were in place you would cue him to pick up the paper, and wait for the rest of the sequence to occur, and reward him for giving you the paper when you asked.  You would keep adding to the chain of behaviours until your dog was doing the whole thing in one smooth sequence without prompting from you.

When I first started playing the piano, I felt like an octopus.  88 keys, ten fingers, two hands, three pedals, two feet, and sheet music felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I felt like I was in some sort of a battle with the keyboard.  Gradually over time, I learned to master about 64 of the keys (nothing I ever played required the very high or very low notes), both of my hands, all my fingers and the sheet music.  Then we moved, and the keyboard didn’t get unpacked, so my musical career came to a rather abrupt end. 

During my short time in music class I learned something really important that I try and remember every time I get a new student in my training hall.  Kinaesthetic skills take time to learn well, and I must break elements of  the skill out so that my students can be successful.  If the student is feeling overwhelmed by a clicker, a leash, the treats, the dog and all the other dogs and trainers in the room, I ask myself which elements can I isolate so that the task is easier for the student.  We use tethers so that the students can learn clicker skills without having to juggle the leash.  We use treat bowls because they are easier for the student to reach into than a bait bag or a baggy.  Sometimes I let a student practice with one of my own dogs so that they can experience first-hand what it feels like when all the elements are in place. 

One of my mentors advised me many years ago to try a new skill each year; martial arts, horse back riding, playing the piano or tennis.  It doesn’t matter what discipline I try, each time I try something new, I learn again that my muscles don’t do what my instructor’s muscles do, and what comes naturally to my instructor won’t come naturally to me, just as what I do with a dog won’t necessarily come naturally to my students.  This year, I returned to riding after fifteen or twenty years away from the saddle.  I learned again that I have a lot to learn, and what comes naturally to my instructors and mentors doesn’t come naturally to me.  As the fall gets colder, I think about what I might try next year.  Sailing?  Maybe.  Or oil painting?  How about calligraphy?  There is something for me to learn about dog training in all of them; it remains to be seen what that might be.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ribbons aren’t Important. They are Essential.

I have been in a number of discussions on the net lately talking about different training methods and the importance or not both of certifying and/or competing with a dog to prove your worth as a trainer.  I seem to be a bit of an unusual person in where I stand.  I currently have two industry designations; the CPDT-KSA and the CDBC.  I worked really hard to learn the material necessary for my designations, and I continue to work hard to maintain my designations by learning new information in my field as it becomes available.  I am also getting ready to write my CBCC-KA because I feel that it is important to continue to grow and develop as a trainer and behaviour consultant.  I also compete when I can in obedience and rally with my German Shepherd Eco.  At least once a year, I enter him in a show and compete against other trainers.  I don’t always win, and I don’t have a lot of titles behind me, but I do prove my ability as a trainer by passing someone else’s test.  I also train service dogs for other people-meaning that I have to prove that I can train a dog to a minimum standard for someone else’s need.

A number of people have suggested that credentialing is worthless and should not be pursued because it only proves that you can write a test and prove you know what someone wants you to learn.  Perhaps.  Interestingly, none of the people who have suggested that credentialing is not worthwhile actually have passed a test showing what they know.  

Likewise, I have heard from another group of people who suggest that showing dogs and earning ribbons is without merit because it is really just a statement of who you have buttered up.  I also hear from a number of positive reinforcement trainers that they won’t compete against the trainers who use methods they don’t approve of.  Funny-but the people who don’t approve of showing their dogs and earning ribbons in any discipline are also the people who haven’t done it.

I will keep this short.  I probably didn’t score the highest on my CPDT exam.  And although I have taken a number of first place ribbons in the obedience ring, I have several firsts and seconds and thirds, a novice obedience title and multiple legs towards rally titles on my current sport dog Eco, I have never scored a 200.  I am getting ready to sit my CBCC this November, and concurrently, Eco and I are preparing to compete in Open and finish his Rally titles this winter.  So I have a challenge for everyone.  

Eco and I and our ribbons and trophies at the GSD National Specialty.  Yes, I know I look like a deer in the headlights!  We don't get fancy pictures like this when we pass a certification.  What a pity!
If you have passed the book tests, don’t tell me that the performance tests have no value unless you have actually titled a dog.  And if you have titled a dog, don’t tell me that the industry accreditations are worthless unless you have done those too.  Because if you think that there is no merit in understanding the theory behind the work we do, or proving the theory by showing the work, in my opinion, you are only living up to half of your potential.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rectangular Thinking or Being Congruent When Teaching and Training.

Definition of CONGRUENCE
: the quality or state of agreeing, coinciding, or being congruent
: a statement that two numbers or geometric figures are congruent 

Six years ago or so a friend and I were sitting in her kitchen and she paid me one of the highest compliments I have ever been paid.  She looked right at me and said “Sue, you are the most congruent person I know”.  Although I like to be complimented, and she obviously meant this in a good way, I was confused.  I was thinking about rectangles and the third grade, and the rectangles having to have properties that were the same; the same angles in each corner or the same lengths of each side.  My confusion must have shown on my face because my friend said to me “I mean that you do what you say”.  I was still confused and I asked her to explain.

Her explanation was fairly long but it related to how I train my dogs and it boiled down to this.  As a dog trainer, I do what I say that I do.  I believe certain things and I work those principles.  I believe for instance that the majority of dog training should be based in positive reinforcement.  But I also believe that a professional should have the choice to choose to use positive punishment in appropriate situations.  I believe that when you goof and hurt someone’s feelings or you say something in anger it is important to apologize and make amends where you can.  I also believe that you should treat people as well as you strive to treat your canine pupils.

This subject came up today with some colleagues after a seminar.  Not all of us treat our human clients as well as we expect them and teach them to treat their dogs.  With three professional certified trainers around the table and one up and coming assistant, we relayed example after example of trainers treating their clients (often ourselves!) poorly all while telling them how they needed to be kinder to their dogs.  We hear over and over again that punishment has no place in training, and then the person doing the telling will crash down an audience member for having the wrong idea or answer.

This very thing happened to me at a seminar offered by a very well known professional.  On the first day, she asked the audience what Ivan Pavlov had won the Nobel Prize for.  I put up my hand and astounded her by answering correctly that it was for Physiology and Medicine in 1904, for the work he had done studying the salivary secretions of dogs, which led to the understanding of conditioned reflexes or classical conditioning.  You can find out more about Pavlov and his Nobel prize at

The speaker was a bit stunned and let the audience know that no one had ever gotten that question right, and gave me a little slip of paper so that I could enter a draw to win a prize.  Hmmm...sounds good; here is a presenter who is violently positive reinforcement based, and who believes that R+ is the way to go, and when I get an answer right, she rewards me.  Sort of.  The problem is that she isn’t rewarding me at all; she is in fact setting me up for potential disappointment.  No matter; I am willing to play games so I happily all day try really hard to answer her questions.  And I collect a bunch of tickets.  And I don’t win anything.  Gambling is a funny thing.  If you gamble, you might win, but if you don’t win, you feel bad.  So I went home feeling bad.  Although she had reinforced me each time I had answered a question correctly, in the end the reinforcement, slips of paper, were not something I actually wanted and could not be turned in for anything tangible.  I would have been happier with her praise or acknowledgement than I was with slips of paper, promising something big, but getting nothing in fact.  

Never the less on day two, I played her game again, but this time she was less enthusiastic about my performance, so she called on me less frequently.  This was mildly annoying but where she lost all my respect was when she did call upon me, and I got the right answer, and she held out the ticket and then TOOK IT BACK, justifying to the audience that I had already won enough tickets.  And I was really, really angry. 
The trainer in question set up a reinforcement schedule which was dicey to begin with; winning the CHANCE to get a prize is a twisted form of token economy where the learner may or may not get a prize.  It is like a click where treats are on a variable schedule, something we were lectured never to do!  And when she started to give me a ticket and then didn’t I became very resentful.  So here was a trainer who was trying to teach us the importance of reinforcement and the value of positive reinforcement based training and she was scrambling it up so very badly that in the end, I decided that I just wouldn’t reward her performance with any more attendance, potentially keeping money out of her pocket.  In point of fact, I was so annoyed that when directly asked what I think of her methods, I am pretty clear that I don’t think that she is as good as her press kit would have us believe.  I don’t slander her, or bad mouth her ( and no, I won’t kiss and tell you who she is), but I don’t support her either and don’t encourage others to go see her.  The problem isn’t that she mis-used reinforcement, although that IS a problem.  The problem is that she was incongruent.

I have been to several large educational seminars, where speakers are invited to teach about science based, dog friendly training.  And at these seminars, I often hear that dog friendly means exclusively positive reinforcement training.  The sad thing is that most of these speakers don’t have anything in their definition beyond dog friendly means positive reinforcement.  Do I believe that the bulk of our training ought to be positive reinforcement based?  Yup.  I do.  I use it all the time, and reserve the use of positive punishment for occasions when I don’t think that positive reinforcement will be effective or efficient training.  The problem is that I don’t see a whole lot of evidence of these trainers really taking the needs of their animals into account.  I see live animal demos with dogs who are afraid and anxious, being handled by people who don’t connect with the animal before trying to get behaviours from them with a clicker.  Dog friendly means a lot more than not using pain to train; it means also looking at the “Left Side of the Dog” ( and acknowledging that there is more here than an input/output machine.  It should also mean acknowledging the dog; greeting the dog, saying hello and checking in with him frequently to see if he is still doing okay and ready to work.  It means standing up and saying something when you see another trainer doing something that is unpleasant or dangerous to the dog.  If you are going to be dog friendly and be congruent, you need to have a broad and complete definition of what you mean by dog friendly, and you need to apply those principles not only to the dog in your hands, but congruently to all the creatures, including the humans in the audience.

Which brings me full circle to being congruent.  I goofed today when I was teaching and spoke harshly to a student and hurt her feelings.  I am sorry and I told her so.  Sometimes I goof with my dogs; I have lost my temper with my puppy and expressed my frustration when she has been barking for a very long time.  One of the reasons that my friend felt that I was congruent was because although I advocate for primarily positive reinforcement based training, I will also admit that from time to time, I goof.  I use punishment when there might be another alternative.  I sometimes lose my temper with my students, both canine and human.  I have even been known to lose my temper with John, my husband.  What I have learned from the speakers I am thinking about is that we must be congruent in our thinking about how we train, and how we live our lives.  Warts and all.  Being congruent is what allows us to be real to our friends and clients.  Jung may have said it best when he said that if you want to know what a person’s values are, you should look at what that person does.  With so many of us trying to provide humane training solutions to dogs, we need to look at the big picture of what our own behaviour says about how we should treat both our human and our canine students.