Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pure Positive

The biggest problem with the “Pure Positive” training movement is that they refuse to discuss how to use corrections (punishments).  All corrections are lumped into that giant emotional trash bin called “abuse”.  The Pure Positive folks completely rule out corrections in training, despite the fact that the quadrant of operant conditioning includes positive punishment and negative reinforcement, both of which involve pressure on the dog.  The pure positive movement preaches like the abstinence only sex education classes. 

I think the abstinence only sex ed is a disservice to young people.  I think pure positive training is a disservice to pet owners and pets.  We need to talk about corrections.  We need to accept training in the pure punishment quadrant.  MOST IMPORTANT, WE NEED TO TEACH PEOPLE HOW AND WHEN TO USE CORRECTIONS.  Because if we don’t then someday Fluffy is not going to come when called, or nip the neighbor’s kid, or jump all over mom who is dressed to go out, and it won’t go well for Fluffy.  Those people who you lectured at length on the evils of correction are now frustrated with Fluffy, sure that all correction is abuse, and far more likely to be abusive than if the proper use of corrections had been discussed and practiced.  They’ll correct too hard.  Because Fluffy has never been corrected she’ll see it as a personal attack rather than a result of a behavioral choice.  Then the owners will feel guilty and not correct her the next time.  Reinforcements work on a variable schedule, punishment does not.  You need to be consistent, correcting essentially every time.  But Fluffy’s owners don’t know that.  So Fluffy can’t figure out the pattern and know what to do to avoid the correction.  Fluffy’s owners get more frustrated, and probably correct Fluffy again, harder this time.  Why, because their instructor never taught them that corrections must be consistent, and very seldom need to be harsh.  Their instructor never warned them that escalation of corrections is not a substitute for consistency of corrections, and indeed escalating corrections without being consistent is abusive because Fluffy never figures out exactly what to do to avoid the corrections.  All the instructor ever said was that corrections are abusive, don’t go there.  It doesn’t work for sex ed and it doesn’t work for dog training.

First, let’s get over this abuse thing.  Properly done corrections are not abuse.  They are feedback on a behavioral choice.  And if you say that pet owners won’t correct properly, well whose fault is that?  Since the pure positive movement won’t allow any reasonable discourse on corrections then there is no learning.  Corrections are everything from a pop on the leash, a quick scold to blocking the dog from its goal, etc. 

I’m not even sure the pure positive folks even let themselves learn the basics of correction:

1.       Correction must be consistent, think V1 (if you really are a positive trainer you should know what that is)

2.       Correction needs to be adjusted so that the dog thinks about it.  For some dogs a hard word or body block is enough.  For a snarky pup pinning it to the ground until it gives up is appropriate.  For a pup that loves to bite and is not responding to being redirected to toys, scruff it or give it a smack, hard enough that the dog stops and thinks about it.  The dog should neither run away nor launch back into the behavior. 

3.       Sometimes, in the case of interrupting a dog mentally involved in its behavior (example a keen young dog working stock) you may need to be fairly harsh to get the dog’s attention.  Once you have the dog’s attention you may need to back way down.  

4.       Do not correct when you are angry.  Indeed better to nip problem behavior before you get totally frustrated with it.  Many folks avoid correction, allow the problem behavior to get established, then not only are they frustrated but the behavior is much more difficult to stop.

5.       You need to be calm and quick when delivering a correction.  No emotion, no tantrums.  Sort of the same as 4, but very important.

6.       Correct at the moment the dog is bad, then stop.  The dog learns from when you stop the correction.  If you continue to berate or correct the dog after it has complied then the dog has no chance to figure out what it is you wanted. 

7.       Timing is everything, just like reinforcements.

8.       Use reinforcement when you can.  Recognize where correction is a better option (simple single behavior you want to eliminate) or the only realistic option (you don’t control the primary reinforcements)

9.       For heaven’s sake when the safety of your dog, or someone else’s dog, or your cat, or the sheep are at stake don’t stand on your pure positive pedestal and think you are some almighty savior because you did not administer an aversive.  While the sheep are terrorized in the corner or the cat is living in the basement you are responsible.  No Pontius Pilate washing your hands clean for you.

10.   If you don’t control the primary reinforcements you are not going to solve the problem with positive training.  To train with reinforcements you need to be able to control the dog’s access to those reinforcements.  Much more difficult in the real world than the training class.  Yes, superb and determined positive trainers can proof a behavior extensively so the dog never thinks about the distraction, but the Jones family is not going to do that with their Lab.  And even that fails when you are training a dog in something self-reinforcing like working livestock.  Yes, you can still use positive reinforcements, but you will need some form of corrections to keep the work in a zone where you have something to reinforce.

I’ve seen quite a few trainers who do incorporate corrections looking for euphemisms to describe corrections.  Let’s not change the word.  Corrections fall into the pure punishment quadrant, nothing wrong with that.  Let’s keep the language clear rather than coming up with new terms to avoid ruffling the clicker cult.

For those who now picture me training with a whip and chair, I have lots of clickers.  I train with clickers.  I went to “chicken camp” with Bob and Marian Bailey and loved it.  I had a great conversation with Bob Bailey about the challenges of training in a self-reinforcing environment.  I love training with positive reinforcement.  I’ve brought in a clinician for a clicker seminar I put together.  I’ve gone to other clicker seminars, including travelling quite a ways to attend.  I put lots of agility titles on dogs using positive reinforcement and my trusty clickers back when I was doing agility.  But these dogs did get corrections for certain life behaviors.  I live on a busy road.  Dive past me to get out the front gate and you will be corrected, every single time.  My dogs work stock.  I don’t control all the reinforcements.  I use corrections to keep the work in a zone that can be reinforced.  I used to foster retired racing greyhounds.  I have cats.  Those dogs wore a muzzle and were kept on a leash when they came in my house.  They were corrected for any intent on the cat, corrected hard for trying to go after it.  Within a day or two a cat would walk in the room and the dog would look away…click/treat/praise.  Several of these dogs who were quite aggressive with cats were able to be placed in homes with cats and live in peace together.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Home for the Holidays

I stopped at Home Depot this evening to pick up some metal rods to finish my corner assemblies on some fence.  I remembered that the long drill bit I use to drill for the rods is bent, so I grabbed another drill bit while I was there.  I selected a bit of a matching size for the rods, then considered if I should get one size larger diameter as well.  Sometimes the wood is wet and it is easier to tap the rods through a larger hole.  But really, the next size up was $10.47 and I was making an excuse to buy it.  I put it back on the hook, gave one last longing look, and headed to the checkout.  But, how could I walk away?  I really think that drill bit and I made a connection.  I felt his little heart beat faster with anticipation as I lifted him from the hook.  Could I be so callous as to inspire a fluttering hope for a home for the holidays, only to discard him back to the hook like a piece of metal?  It’s Christmas.  I went back and found him, lifted him gently from the hook and carried him to the checkout.  He’s now nestled with his little brother in the shop.  I think I’ll name him Twist.  Welcome home little buddy.  Welcome home.  

Sunday, December 20, 2015


I took my mom food shopping this evening.  Usually she does the food shopping.  She likes to shop.  I hate to shop.  But I needed to drive her.  She’s been using my commuter car since we scrapped her old wagon.  Last weekend she ran my car into a cement planter at the church.  She did quite a bit of damage, then drove home without looking at the damage to make sure the newly flattened tire on the newly bent rim being rubbed by the newly mangled bumper was destroyed.  I confess to being short on Christmas spirit last weekend, particularly when she neglected to mention the incident until I asked her to pick something up for me.

So I finally bought her another car this morning, pictured.  It arrives Wednesday.  Small, safe, solid, and inexpensive to insure and maintain.  My own redneck version of the Lexus “December to Remember” ads with the expensive lacquered machine in the driveway wearing a giant bow.  Maybe I’ll take out some curling ribbon and put a little bow on the antenna.   
Back to the shopping…  I asked the checkout girl if it was normally that busy on a Sunday evening.  She and the bagger looked at each other, then studied me for a moment, and said “It’s dead tonight.”  I’ll go back under my rock now.  Oh well.  Mom then suggested that I bring the car around for the groceries, as it would be easier to make the turn from the exit up by the store.  Apparently she was unimpressed with my standard parking methodology.  Pull into the parking lot, take the first spot you see then walk.  I agreed to get the car, deciding to swing left and around the rows so I could get lined up at the curb at the store.  There was traffic in the direction I chose.  Traffic that was keeping me from getting around and back up to the store.  My language took a bad turn, Christmas spirit meets construction site.  If Rudolph had been there his nose would not have been the only thing turning red. 
Home again.  Christmas spirit is returned, courtesy of olives and rice thins purchased at the market.  If I could have found the damn gluten free croutons I’d be downright angelic right now. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dark December Mornings

Dark December mornings
Up early to enjoy the lights on the tree,
the warmth of the house
Up early to see the black soften to gray,
the world lit for our eyes 

Last days before the solstice
Up early to celebrate the rebirth of the sun,
the coming long days
Up early to enjoy each bright hour,
till the low sun wanes 

Saturnalia, Feast of Juul, Alban Arthuan
Up early to revel in anticipation,
bringing joy to now
Up early to embrace life as it is given,
ride the waves of days

©2015 Maria Amodei

Friday, December 11, 2015

It’s Time for a Change

Training a dog takes time.  Sometimes Spot seems to grasp a new concept quickly, but then you find he does not understand as well as you thought when you place that job in a different context.  Sometimes Spot seems to lack the required intelligence or desire or talent to get the job.  I’ve despaired of a dog ever becoming merely competent at a certain task, only to have them become quite expert over time such that I’d completely forgotten the early struggles. 

Though training a dog takes time, you should see progress.  It may be slow progress, but it must be real progress, not wishfully imagined.  If you can’t look back to a week or two ago and see you have made some measurable progress then you need to change your training picture.  The young dog is still very tough to stop, sometimes blowing past you to the stock, but two weeks ago you had him on a long line with the sheep behind you in a corner and had work to get him stopped and caught as he tried to dart past you.  Maybe the other dog you started at the same time is now stopping well on the back side of the sheep and beginning to learn his sides, but this young dog that is still tough to control has made measurable progress. 
If you are not making real progress then you need to change your training picture.  Some ideas:
1.       Train more often, short sessions-more often.  With hot dogs your first session(s) of the day are often just working the edge.  If you can get several sessions in a day the edge will diminish and learning will take its place.

2.       Make the job simpler.  If you can’t stop the dog well, then keep the job to very small and simple gathers with one criteria – stop, now, always immediately enforced.  The more criteria on the table at one time the more difficult the task even if you are in a small pen with quiet sheep.  If the dog is struggling to improve, don’t be working flanks, stops, sides, pace all at the same time.  I’m not saying forgive any behavior, but setup your exercises to keep focused on the main problem.

3.       If you can’t stop your dog without a fuss, fix that first before you do anything else.  You can’t much help a dog that you can’t control.  Yes, working on the stop is boring, but a requirement for all other work.

4.       Pay attention to yourself.  Are you enforcing your requirements immediately and consistently?  If not, fix your own responses. 

5.       Just as important, are you taking the pressure off the moment the dog complies?  Continuing to harass a dog that has complied with the requirements is just that, harassment.  Your dog learns what is wanted by the moment you release the pressure.  If you do not release the pressure when the dog gets it right then you just lost the opportunity to show the dog what you want. 

6.       Does your voice come back to normal after correcting a dog?  If you find you are tense and grumpy, in particular even after the dog has fixed whatever you just corrected, then quit the session.   It is easy to let frustration corrode your training when your dog is not making progress. Temper will only take your training backwards.

7.       Still getting nowhere?  Spend some time thinking about the problem.  Not while you are on the field with the dog, but while driving to work, feeding the sheep, whatever.  Really think about it.  Look for the pattern of when things go wrong and that may help you come up with a new training picture.

8.       If a dog fails an exercise over and over and over again for heaven’s sake change the exercise.  Make it smaller, shorter, simpler in some way.  I aim for about an 80% success rate.  Success is defined according to what I can expect from that particular dog at its current level of training.  More experienced and established partners can tolerate a higher failure rate, but repeated failures are not teaching the dog what is right. 

9.       Try another training environment.  A new field, different sheep.  If you don’t have anything yourself, find someone else.  In particular with green dogs if your stock is difficult or the field challenging they may need a simpler environment to get their understanding of a concept down before they can apply it in all situations.

10.   Get help.  Another set of eyes, preferably very experienced eyes, may see your dog a whole different way and offer a much better approach.  Even if you are an experienced trainer, get help.
Don’t keep slogging on the training treadmill.  Constantly evaluate if you are making real progress.  It does not need to be fast progress, but it needs to be clear progress.  If you are standing still, make a change.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Tree Menorah

My first job out of college was writing movie descriptions for cable TV guides. The pay was lousy, hours unreliable, and the office was so cold we fought for the chance to use the photo copier as it generated a lot of warmth. It was grand fun. All kids right out of college. We sat around tables and wrote the descriptions, sized to fit various slots in the guides. We laughed together at the hopeless schlock we created. Anything older than 20 years is a "timeless masterpiece" regardless of actual quality, trust me on this. The most fun was writing descriptions for "Escapade", later renamed the Playboy channel. We would be in stitches writing provocative bits that could still be printed in a guide that would land on family coffee tables. 
The staff were about 50/50 Jewish and Christian. When we planned our holiday party I sketched a Christmas tree menorah. My sketch was hideous as I've no talent with my hands, but we had a department full of artists and one of them created this festive image for our invitation. I remembered this today, and dug through some old files to find it. Yellowing a bit, but still fun.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Trust Your Dog

Rhyme, self-appointed royalty in her current life, was an opinionated creature to train.  Certain commands were deemed irrelevant to her rarified consciousness.  Commands like “Lie Down”.  She’d come around the top on a lovely cast, turn in, and drive into the sheep and catch one.  I would go up the middle and push her back over and over and over and over.  I’d send her and start walking, every time.  This was understandably frustrating.  It was difficult to keep myself calm.  I grew tired of constantly reprimanding her and holding her back, struggling to keep the annoyance from my attitude.  I knew that to some degree the constant corrections added energy to the situation.  One day on a large open field with a group of ram lambs I decided to trust her, stop the nagging, just turn around and let her bring the sheep along with me.  I started with a small gather.  She stopped at the top, good.  As she brought the sheep to me I turned around and started walking.  No nagging, pushing on her, nothing.  It was working!  I stayed looking ahead as I walked briskly along, but could hear the quiet patter of the group of sheep just a short distance behind me.  Rhyme always had lovely balance and never was one to let any of her charges wander off.  I relaxed.  This was the secret.  I’d been sustaining her bad behavior with the energy of my constant corrections.  Hallelujah!  I walked about 50 yards, the little group of ram lambs trip trapping along behind me.
Not wanting to go too far and tempt fate, I turned around to stop her.  I was not so idealistic as to believe she would stop with my back turned.  There was the little group of ram lambs about 10 feet behind me, walking along, occasionally glancing back at the one poor sod who Rhyme had caught.  She must have gotten a hold of him right after I turned my back.  This was when I had Navajo Churros.  Long draping fleeces in a variety of colors.  She had a huge swath of fleece from the britches of this poor lamb and was using it like a rope to haul him backwards.  Her feet were spread and dug in, muscled bulged on her fit little body.  She was hauling on that hunk of fleece like a champion tug of war contestant.  Inch by inch she was pulling this poor lamb backwards.  The only part of him making forward progress were his eyes, bugging out of his head.  The rest of the group was showing the classic ovine survival response.  “She’s got Joey.  Just keep moving.  Poor Joey, but it’s not my turn to be eaten today.” 
It was a long time before I turned my back on Rhyme again.      

Silent Communication

On some level dogs are clearly getting information from us beyond the auditory cues and more blatant body moves we do to support the work and training.  Perhaps this is just their sensitivity to the most subtle body language, but it seems to work at a distance as well when our body language will be lost in the yards.  The dogs are sensitive to our intent and our focus.
I bring this up because some of the questions asked on various topics can be answered the same way:  You put your focus on the stock and the path you want.  Whatever you are trying to do, outrun, fetch, drive, pen… if you are focusing on the dog then the dog’s performance will deteriorate.  Maybe this is only because when you are paying attention to the dog you are not paying attention to your sheep so your plan becomes irrelevant to the current situation.  But it matters on outruns as well.  If a dog is struggling with outruns the worst thing is to pay attention to the dog.  Keep the distance reasonable and focus on the stock intently.  You’ll be able to see the dog in your peripheral vision.  If you need to walk up the center line to help, do this with your entire attention and energy on the stock.  If you want the sheep on a line, keep the sheep and that line on the forefront of your focus.  Spend less mental energy on the dog and moving the dog around. 
Like I said, I don’t know the mechanism(s) of this communication.  But it is there.  When my head is in the job my dogs are able to work with fewer recognizable cues.  Everything is smoother.  This is one of the major differences between experienced handlers and novice handlers.  Be the sheep, seriously.  This is a very important mind set to practice.  Who cares how it works, just know that it does.