Archive for November, 2010

A Lesson

One of Charlie’s remaining quirks is a continued profound fascination with, and sometimes irrational fear of, reflections and other shiny or sparkly things.

One of the ways this manifests is in his unswerving conviction that his reflection is some kind of unspeakably evil thing.

Early this morning I was having a cup of coffee and catching up on a bit of reading when Charlie caught sight of an evil thing in the glass front of the fireplace.

Charlie was transfixed by his reflection. He went stiff-legged and bug-eyed. He piloerected from the front of his forehead to the tip of his half-raised tail. He started growling softly but quickly escalated to an eerily accurate imitation of the demon Pazuzu.

I looked down at Audie, who was lying at my feet. Audie met my gaze with the kind of deep look that conveys an entire conversation. He got up, trotted across the room and picked up Charlie’s favorite stuffed toy. He carried it over to his irrational, ranting buddy and playbowed. Charlie woke from his trance, went soft, wagged his tail at Audie and the two of them moved away to play tug games together.

Audie (whose play was rooted more from of a sense of duty than real enthusiasm) quickly tired of the game and returned to his spot at my feet. Unfortunately once he was no longer distracted by the game, it didn’t take Charlie long to discover that the unspeakable evil had returned to the fireplace and he continued his tirade.

Audie and I had another silent conversation and, being a dog with a strong sense of duty, he trotted over to the horrid little dog at fireplace again.  Eschewing the toy, this time Audie put on his best bendy, prancy, head-rolling, come-hither body language and successfully flirted Charlie’s attention away from the abomination in the window.

The ploy worked and the boys wrestled a bit. They got distracted by a squirrel on the deck and Audie laid at my feet again.

And once Charlie’s attention was free to roam on its own – it made a bee-line for the same ugly, obsessive place.

I could tell Audie had moved from dutiful to annoyed because this time he didn’t even look at me. He just got up, snatched a dirty sock off the floor, marched over the fireplace and stepped between Charlie and the object of his obsession in a coldly calculating way. Audie blocked the fireplace and stared at Charlie in obvious contempt until Charlie quit ululating and averted his gaze. Audie returned to my feet, spat out the sock and sighed in a distinctly annoyed way – but instead of relaxing he remained alert.

In the mean time Charlie had hopped up onto the couch to sulk. He averted his gaze from Audie’s direction (and mine) and fixed it on a blank spot on the wall, apparently trying to stare a hole through it. He remained like this, hunkered down, ears pinned back, glaring at the epic unfairness of it all until the sound of the UPS truck broke his rumination.

All the dogs ran to the door, but we’ve worked on this. They barked a bit, then sat quietly and attentively near the door while the driver dropped off two boxes and three dog treats before he rang the bell and walked away. They were antsy, but stayed generally sitting until I picked up the boxes – and the treats – and rewarded their good behavior.

The three dogs drifted around me for a while in a soft, curving, happy mass. Glad to be together, pleased to have been given an unexpected treat and proud to have earned it. Sadly, the serenity didn’t last long. And when the joy of the moment had passed, each of the dogs wandered off to pursue his own interests. Unfortunately Charlie’s interest went immediately back to staring down his demon.

Audie had settled on one of the dog beds to work on a bone. He tried to ignore the shrieking abomination across the room, he really did. But the utter wrongness of it could not be denied. And it could not be allowed to continue.

Audie dropped the bone, narrowed his eyes, laid back his ears and darted across the room. He’d given up on asking Charlie to agree to stop his annoying, unbalanced behavior. He would make it happen.

Audie delivered a swift muzzle punch to Charlie’s left flank. The impact threw Charlie off balance and instantly pulled his attention away from the monster in the fireplace. He spun around and yelped more, I think, in surprise than in pain. He took one look at Audie’s intensely annoyed expression and dropped to grovel softly – and quietly – at his feet. Audie stalked around Charlie to block him once more from the fireplace and Charlie got up and slunk away to the kitchen.

Audie stood claiming the fireplace until he was sure Charlie wasn’t going to return. Then he resumed his preferred position at my feet.

A while after Charlie banished himself to the kitchen to process events I took the dogs outside for a break. Charlie and Audie romped together as if nothing had happened. Charlie didn’t express any fear or mistrust of Audie. And Audie showed no trace of resentment or unwarranted bossiness toward Charlie. (And Zip was as haughty and aloof as she’s ever been.)

Life in my dogs’ world went on much as it always has with only one notable exception. This happened more than seven hours ago – and Charlie hasn’t so much as looked at the fireplace since.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

November 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm 9 comments

Dyson dog dryer?

The engineers at Dyson have come up with a new dog grooming attachment for their popular vacuum cleaner line. The tool is an adjustable brush that sucks the hair and dander it removes from the dog into a vaccum cleaner. The Dyson Groom tool will retail at GBP40 (US$64) and it reportedly fits most of the company’s vacuum cleaners. Unfortunately it will only be available in the UK retailers for the time being.

Photos of the Dyson Groom have been published at UK techie sites PocketLint and GizMag. I’ve posted a few below, check out the links for more.

While the Dyson Groom tool is a pretty nifty idea, I think that the company has the potential to create a much handier tool for dog owners.  Dyson’s airblade is a high-tech hand dryer that “… uses sheets of clean air traveling at 400 mph to literally scrape water from your hands like a windshield wiper.” According to Dyson’s specs it does the job efficiently too, using about 80% less energy than heated air hand dryers.

A portable, hand-held version of Dyson’s air blade would be a great dog dryer. I’m guessing that there’s a market for a blade of fast, non-heated air that scrapes water, loose hair and other debris off wet dogs. And while the airblade’s $1,100 price may seem a bit high, a good dog dryer retails for $300-600 and I would guess that with time, prices would drop as they do with most tech tools. Besides a portable hand-held air blade could also be used to sweep and dry horses, cars and maybe even floors (if a wide body model was available).

November 7, 2010 at 11:13 am 12 comments

Best. Gundog Retrieve. Ever.

Today, in celebration of the opening day of the Minnesota gun deer hunting season we bring you this gem via Outdoor Life:

Displaying the kind of obsessive focus and drive that can turn this popular breed into the Pet From Hell – a labrador retriever named Ramsay successfully retrieved his 14-year old owner’s first antlered deer. Across a lake. In January. Read the whole thing here.

Unfortunately it’s illegal to use a dog to track deer (even injured deer) in Minnesota. Dog owners can be fined up to $500 if their dog kills an animal – and a dog can be shot by police or conservation officers if it is caught chasing deer.

November 6, 2010 at 7:15 am 4 comments

Dog training as gaming

Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.

Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.

Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.

To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.

Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.

  1. Complex games give us a way to measure our progress.  When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
     
  2. A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
     
  3. A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad - and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
     
  4. A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
      
  5. It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast.  Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation.  It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
           
  6. A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ‘windows of enhanced attention’ – and leave you both wanting more.
      
  7. Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.

I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life – joy would disappear too.

A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.

November 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm 10 comments


Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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