a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Operant Dogs

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Operant Dogs

One of the topics at the seminar was clicker training. I've been using clicker training a bit for the dogs for 3 or 4 years. Remington picked up the concept very quickly; was doing target nose touches within 15 minutes of trying. Jake would sit and stare up at me, wagging his tail. Tika picked up clicker training instantly and I've used it a lot for her. Jake sits and stares up at me, wagging his tail.

You use the click to reward a behavior that you want. There are two ways to get that behavior: cause it to happen (e.g., leading with food) or wait for the dog to offer something similar to the behavior that you want and then click each time that the dog gets closer to what you're looking for. This is called shaping This generally gets stronger behavior and better learning because the dog is thinking about what he's doing instead of always being shown what to do and blindly repeating it.

A dog who offers behavior is referred to as operant. Tika is reasonably operant; offers behaviors when I whip out the clicker, although I don't do general clicking simply for doing something different often enough, so I have to be patient and wait while she repeatedly offers the tricks she already knows before she starts moving or looking in other kinds of ways.

Jake sits and looks up at me, wagging his tail.

Casey I've not done much with, but he does do a few things (sit, lift his paw, lie down, roll on his side, sit, beg, lie down, roll on his side, sit, lift his paw, lie down....) and I've been occasionally waiting patiently for anything else (e.g., stand, look away from me...) and clicking that. I think he'll shape up nicely into an operant beast with some patience. Guess I ought to explain this to his mom sometime!

During this seminar, I saw many many dogs who were not operant, who simply stood or sat next to or in front of their handlers, doing nothing. Susan advised patience--she said it might seem like forever now, but it will pay off in the long run. So indeed I saw almost all of those dogs eventually do *something*--move a foot, turn the head--even if the handler had to wait 3, 4, or 5 minutes.

So I tried with Jake this evening again. He sat and looked up at me, wagging his tail. I waited for quite a while and clicked him doing ANYthing else, but mostly that involved moving his head or a paw. I did get him to do a brand-new hand-touch (with his nose) several times, but that was after I offered my hand as an obvious target. Then I put some of his toys out on the ground and decided that the goal would be for him to touch one of them. Took about 10 minutes, and each time that he'd get his nose lower to the ground and I'd click, he'd go right back to sitting and looking up at me, wagging his tail. Touched his squeaky maybe 3 times, a couple of minutes apart, with lots of sitting/looking/wagging and occasional slight head dips in between. I finally decided that was enough for both of us and just had him do some things he already knows.

With Tika, I decided to see whether I could get her to pick up the furry snake in the toy basket behind her and bring it to me. It took a bit, but she kept working at it, and it went fine until she dropped it in the water dish while turning her head at one point. Pretty good for not a lot of practice at shaping. I was pleased with myself and with her, since I often seem to shape her into doing completely unintended things.

Examples--when I first started, I wanted to shape her into turning left & right. I succeeded in shaping her to walk sideways. This seminar, I wanted to shape her to walk between two poles. Within 30 seconds I had shaped her into an irreversibly strong behavior of placing the side of her head against a pole and standing there. On the other hand, when I wanted to shape her into walking *around* a jump upright, we succeeded at that in about a minute and a half, much faster than anyone else there. So it has to be something that I have a good understanding of what I'm looking for and luck that she doesn't offer what they call cheap behavior along with the desired behavior.

For example, when she took a step towards the two poles, maybe she turned her head slightly towards one of them and I didn't realize it, so I clicked, thinking I was reinforcing the step, when in fact I was reinforcing the head turn toward the poles.

Interesting stuff.

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