Should We Reinforce the Effort or the Result?

 

If you ask, “should we reinforce the effort or the result?” you are liable to get as many answers supporting the one opinion as for the other. Supporters of the effort system sustain that reinforcing results creates emotional problems when one doesn’t succeed and decreases the rate of even trying. Advocates of the result method defend that reinforcing the effort encourages sloppiness and cheating.

I shall argue in the following for and against both theories and prove that it is not a question of either/or, rather of defining clearly our criteria, processes, and goals.

 

Effort or Result

Learning is a complex process The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents and bad trainers do not master. We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, want to be challenged, to be able to give their best in solving the problem, not giving up.

 

I shall compare the learning of some skills in dogs and humans because the principles are the same. The difference between them and us is one “of degree, not of kind,” as Darwin put it.

I will use SMAF to describe some processes accurately where I find it advantageously. If you are not proficient in SMAF, and you’d like to be, please read “Mission SMAF— Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training.”

The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents and bad trainers do not master (bad means inefficient, and it is not a moral judgment).

Much of my personal work with dogs (and rats and Guinea Pigs) is and has been detection work, mainly narcotics and explosives, but also person search, tobacco and other. One of the first signals I teach the animals is a disguised reinforcer.

With dogs, I use the sound ‘Yes’ (the English word). The signal part of this signal/reinforcer means, “continue what you’re doing,” and the reinforcer part, “we’re OK, mate, doing well, keep up.” That is a signal that becomes a reinforcer: Continue,sound(yes) that becomes a “!+sound”(yes).

The difference between the most used “!±sound”(good-job) and “!+sound”(yes) is that the former is associated and maintained with “!-treat”(small food treat) and “!-body(friendly body language); and the latter with a behavior that will eventually produce “!-treat”. The searching behavior does not provide a treat, but continuing searching will eventually (find or no find). That is why “!+sound”(yes) is a disguised Continue,sound(yes) or the other way around.

Why do I need this interbreeding between a signal and a reinforcer?
Because the signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find, which is good for all of us (airports and the likes are not that full of drugs and explosives).

English Springer Spaniel On The Trail

Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” The signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find.

 

So, what does Search,sound mean? What am I reinforcing? The effort?
No, I’m not. We have to be careful because if we focus on reinforcing the effort, we may end up reinforcing the animal just strolling around, or any other accidental or coincidental behavior.

I am still reinforcing the result. ‘Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” ‘Thing’ is everything that I have taught the dog to search and locate for me, e.g. cocaine, hash, TNT, C4.

“Go and find out whether there is a thing out there” leaves us with two options equally successful: ‘here’ and ‘clear.’ When there is a thing, the dog answers ‘here’ by pointing at its apparent location (I have taught it that behavior). When there is no thing, that is exactly what I want the animal to tell me: the dog answers ‘clear’ by coming back to me (again because I have taught it that). We have two signals and two behaviors:

Thing,scent => dog points (‘here’ behavior).
∅Thing,scent => dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior).

The signals are part of the environment. I do not give them, which does not matter: a signal (SD) is a signal (1). An SD is a stimulus associated with a particular behavior and a particular consequence or class of consequences. When we have two of them, we expect two different behaviors and when there is none, we expect no behavior. What fools us, here, is that in detection work we always have one and only one SD, either one or the other. It is impossible to have none. Either we have a scent, or we don’t, which means that either we have Thing,scent or we have ∅Thing,scent, requiring two different behaviors as usually. The one SD is the absence of the other.

Traditionally, we don’t reinforce a search that doesn’t produce a positive indication. To avoid extinguishing the behavior, we use ‘controlled positive samples’ (a drug or an explosive, we know it is there because we have placed it there to give the animal a possibility to obtain a reinforcer).

That is a correct solution, except that it teaches the dog that the criterion for success is ‘to find’ and not ‘not to find,’ which is not true. ‘Not to find’ (because there is nothing) is as good as ‘to find.’ The tricky part is, therefore, to reinforce the ‘clear’ and how to do it to avoid sloppiness (strolling around) and cheating.

Let us analyze the problem systematically.

The following process does not give us any problems:

Search,sound => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) or Continue,sound(yes) => Dog searches => Dog finds thing (Thing,scent) => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

No problem, but what, then, when there is no thing (∅Thing,scent)? If I don’t reinforce the searching behavior, I might extinguish it. In that situation, I reinforce the searching with “!+sound”(yes):

“Search,sound” => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) => Dog searches => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job). */And I can also give “!-treat”*/

Looks good, but it poses us some compelling questions:
How do I know the dog is searching versus strolling around (sloppiness)?
How do I know I am reinforcing the searching behavior?

If I reinforce the dog coming back to me, then, next time I risk that the dog will take a quick round and get to me right away: that is the problem. I want to dog to return to me only when it finds nothing (the same as didn’t find anything).

Problems:
To reinforce the searching behavior.
To identify the searching behavior versus strolling around (sloppiness). How can I make sure that the dog always searches and never just rambles around?

Solution:
Reinforcing the searching behavior with “!+sound”(yes) works. OK.

Remaining problem:
I have to reinforce the ‘clear’ behavior (coming back to me), but how can I make sure that the dog always searches and never strolls around (avoid sloppiness)?
How can I make sure that the dog has no interest in being sloppy or cheating me?

Solution:
To teach the dog that reinforcers are available if and only if:
1. The dog finds the thing. Thing,scent => Dog sits => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.
2. The dog does not ever miss a thing. ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

Training:
I teach the dog gradually to find things until I reach a predetermined low concentration of the target scent (my DLO—Desired Learning Objective). In this phase of training, there is always one thing to find. After ten consecutive successful finds (my criterium and quality control measure), all producing reinforcers for both the searching (“!+sound”(yes)) and the finding (“!+sound” + “!-treat”), I set up a situation with no thing (∅Thing,scent). The dog searches and doesn’t find anything. I reinforce the searching and the finding (no-thing) as previously. Next set-up, I make sure there is a thing to find, and I reinforce both searching and finding.

I never reinforce not-finding a thing that is there, or finding a thing that is not there (yes, the last one is an apparent paradox).

Consequence: the only undesirable situations for a dog are: (1) not-finding a thing that is there (the dog did not indicate Thing,scent), or (2) indicating a thing that is not there (the dog indicates ∅Thing,scent).

(1) Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
Or:
(2) ∅Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].

That is (negatively) inhibiting negligence, but since it proves to increase the intensity of the searching, we cannot qualify it as an inhibitor. Therefore, we call it a non-reinforcer: “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
In the first case:

Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
Becomes:
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
Then:
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

In the second case, I have to be 100% sure that there is indeed no-thing. The training area must be free of any scent remotely similar to the scent we are training (Thing,scent). Particularly in the first phases of the training process, this is an imperative, and a trainer who misses that is committing major negligence.

Should the dog, nevertheless, show ‘here’ for ∅Thing,scent, then we can use the same procedure as above:

∅Thing,scent => Dog shows ‘here’ behavior => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

What if later the dog doesn’t find a thing that is there in a lower concentration than the one I used for training, or masked by other scents?

No problem—that is not the dog’s fault. I didn’t train it for it. The dog doesn’t know that it is committing a mistake by giving me a (wrong) ‘clear.’ As far as the dog is concerned, the room is clear. For the dog, it is a ‘clear’: ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound” + “!-treat”. The dog was not strolling around and is not cheating me.

Comparing to humans:
I reinforce the behavior of the child trying to solve a math problem. Yes, we must always reinforce (or inhibit) a behavior, not the individual. “Well done, but you got it wrong because…” The solution may be incorrect, but the method was correct. Then, it is all a question of training. The ‘wrong’ will be eliminated with more or better training. Maybe, it was caused by a too abrupt increase in the difficulty curve of the problem (which is the teacher’s problem). We are not reinforcing trying; we are reinforcing the correct use of a method (a desired process).

Why reinforce the process?
We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, must want to be tried and to be able to give their best in solving a problem.

Are we reinforcing the effort rather than the success?
No, we are not. Reinforcing the effort rather than the result can and will lead to false positives. The animal indicates something that it is not there because it associates the reinforcer with the behavior, not the thing. Children give us three-four consecutive, quick and wrong answers if we reinforce the trying, not the process (thinking before answering).
We reinforce the result (success) only. When the dog doesn’t find because there’s nothing to find, that is a success. When the dog doesn’t find because the concentration was too low, that is a success because ‘too low’ is here equal to ‘no-thing.’ When the child gets it wrong, it is because the exercise exceeded the actual capacity of the child (not trained to that). No place to hide for trainers, coaches, teachers, and parents.

We are still reinforcing success and exactly what we trained the dog and the child to do. We don’t say to the child, “Well, you tried hard enough, good.” We say, ” Well done; you did everything correctly. You just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that x=2y-z and you couldn’t know it.” Next time, the child gets it right because now she knows it; and if not, it is because x=2y-z exceeds the capacity of that particular child at that particular moment, in which case, there’s nothing to do about it.

The same with the dog: the dog (probably) will not indicate 0.01g of cocaine because I trained it to go as low as 0.1g. When I reinforce the dog’s ‘clear,’ I say, “Well done, you did everything correctly, you just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that 0.01g cocaine is still the thing.” Now, I train the dog that ‘thing’ means ‘down to 0.01g cocaine’ and either the dog can do it or it cannot. If it can, good. If it cannot, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Conclusion:
We reinforce result, success, not the effort, not trying. We must identify success, have clear criteria for success, plan a progressive approach to our goal, a gradual increase in difficulties. We must be able to recognize limits and limitations in ourselves, in the animal species with which we work, in the individuals we tutor, in the particular skill we teach. We must know when we cannot improve a skill any further and when someone, human or not, cannot give us more than what we get; and be satisfied with that.
________
Footnotes
1 Strictly speaking, the scent, which the detection dog searches, is not a signal, but a cue, because it is not intentional. In this context, however, it is and SD because we have conditioned it to be so, and we can, therefore, call it a signal. Please, see “Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

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Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

Dog snarling

Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).

 

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

The same goes for inhibitors.1 We should always bear in mind that we never reinforce or inhibit an individual but rather a behavior.2

 

Dog barks at door.

This can be superstitious behavior: the dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

 

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw some Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created this superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another piggy would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will happen sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.
________
1“Inhibitors” were earlier called “punishers.” I coined the new term in “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.
2 In Abrantes 2013 and 2016.

References
Abrantes, R. (2013) The 20 Principles That All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Abrantes, R. (2916) Animal Training My Way, Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Timberlake, W and Lucas G. A. (1985). The basis of superstitious behavior: chance contingency, stimulus substitution, or appetitive behavior? J Exp Anal Behav. 1985 Nov; 44(3): 279–299.

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The Problem in Animal Training Is Not Technique but Attitude

Roger Abrantes and Cocker in Tulsa.

When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your guinea-pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature (photo by Lisa Jernigan Bain).

 

Some years ago, I created my seminar “The Brave New World of Dog Training—Science with Brain and Heart,” which turned into “Animal Training My Way.” As the seminars progressed, it became increasingly clear to me that the crucial problem in today’s animal training is not technique but attitude.

“The Brave New World of Training—Science with Brain and Heart” was my attempt to deal with the following questions: Can we combine science with affection? Can we turn our dog training into a scientific exercise for our brains and a caring adventure for our hearts? Can we be efficient and affectionate?

Of course, it is possible to combine brain and heart, science and affection. What we can’t do is to drop it all in the same pot and cook it until it becomes an unrecognizable and tasteless mass—more or less as an Englishman cooks vegetables.

Science itself needs brain and heart. Staying in the culinary jargon, making science without the brain is like cooking an omelet without eggs, but using science without the heart is like cooking it in a lukewarm pan. The science, we study, and we ponder. When we’re done, we integrate it in what we are. The heart, we use to apply it all after it became an integral part of us, to be who we are.

It’s all a question of attitude. You can have the best technique of all and the most advanced gizmos in the world and yet to no avail if your stance, like an invisible leash, holds you back. And you can show poor technique and possess no gadgets at all and be immensely successful if your attitude is correct. I’ve witnessed it numerous times, from the Tibetan mountains to the rice paddies of the Mekong—people who knew nothing about learning theory, had never seen a training aid, yet living in perfect harmony with their animals.

When you train your dog, your horse, your cat, your Guinea pig, you shouldn’t be thinking of science. You should be yourself, the science already a part of you as second nature. You should be in control of yourself, relating to the animal you face as a living organism, an equal, a creature you meet for a brief moment in space and time. Then and there, you’ll discover that what we call things matters little; that gizmos are unimportant, and techniques irrelevant. You’ll relax, and you’ll appreciate the relationship, not the training, not your achievement, for you’ll have ceased to fight your craving for order and control. You’ll have realized that life is disjointed, and you’ll take it as it is.

Your training will improve dramatically because you’ll have joined them, those animals you train, horse, dog, cat or Guinea pig, never asking for meanings nor seeking justifications, craving neither for gratifications. Then, you’ll be one among many with the one and particularly unique value of being yourself, the proverbial ripple in the ocean—and that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?

 

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Dramatic second day Guinea Pig Camp

Dog and Guinea Pig.
Guinea pig and dog sharing a bonding moment (photo by Mark Taylor of http://www.marktaylorphotography.com).

 

So many lessons to learnGuinea pig camps are intense. In the morning, one of the little ones was almost unconscious. At first, I thought he was dead. Guinea pigs are fragile and when they get sick, usually, it goes quickly downhill and there’s not much we can do about it. I notified everybody that he would probably die so no one would be shocked by it, and proceeded to give him emergency care: warmth, orange juice and rest. I also gave him a few “flakes” of cucumber and carrot, and he ate them, which was a good sign.

Danielle, of the team where he belonged, monitored his progress closely. Surprisingly enough, he improved rapidly, and, at noon, he seemed to have recovered. At 2 pm, he was working, going the full course of obstacles and learning the indication behavior “paw on cube” he will need to point out the target scent when we get to that step today.

I dubbed him ลูกปุย (Lūk puy). I have this habit of naming the Guinea pigs in Thai. His name means “fluffy baby” or “fluffy ball.” ปุย is a common nickname for Thai girls, but I don’t think he cares too much about that.

Here is ลูกปุย showing his newly acquired “paw on cube” skill.

 

 

Less than perfect is… perfect, seemed to be a lesson to learn from Michael’s team. His teammates are rookies, but dedicated and positive, and Michael is an excellent team leader. Everybody commits mistakes and, naturally, rookies error more often than experienced trainers. In order to progress, we must evaluate our POA (plan of action), analyze our mistakes and correct them—but that’s it, no more, period. Alas, I see many trainers getting too upset when things don’t go the way they want, which ends up working against their best intentions. Not so in Michael’s team, they took it cool and at the end of the day both their piggies were running the whole course and showing the indication behavior they should just perfectly.

To bring it all into perspective (see my blogs from yesterday and the day before), a little emotion and stress are necessary to learn and to achieve success—and too much defeats the purpose.

It’s all a question of balance. Amazing, isn’t it, what little creatures like the Guinea pigs can help us realize? Then again, there are lessons to learn everywhere if we care to watch and to listen. The difficult part in doing it, is that we have to, if only for a moment, forget ourselves, be aware that we are not the center of the universe even though it may appear to be so for us. Not easy, but doable and extremely gratifying, if you ask me.

Life is beautiful.

 

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How Splendid They Are—or the Importance of Imprinting

 

First Guinea pig camp day. How splendid they are, the little Guinea pigs! Between three and eight weeks of age, they are curious, friendly and quick learners. They are so totally cute! (To put it in modern American English.)

The clip above, which I’m sure you watched as soon as you arrived at this page, is a quick iPhone recording to show you little Chupa-Chupa only two hours after the team started training it. It does not live up to the quality of the movies I usually show but bear with me. I just had to capture the moment and show it to you.

I must compliment Michael and Natalie for the brilliant job they have done imprinting and socializing the young Guinea pigs. Without it, we would have spent the whole day yesterday, and would spend most of today, habituating them to the environment, novel stimuli, humans, etc. As they are, the teams could teach them all the agility obstacles. This is the first time we have achieved it in one day, undoubtedly due to the perfect imprinting and socialization of the piggies.

Though this makes it much easier for the camp attendees to train the Guinea pigs, it also deprives them of the experience of going thru the laborious process of imprinting and socialization. Fortunately, we have a couple of older piggies, Michael and Natalie got later, for comparison.

I wished dog breeders knew more about these all relevant mechanisms in the formation of behavior. Imagine that all puppies were perfectly imprinted and socialized to the human world. I bet we would see a dramatic fall in problem behavior and wouldn’t that be splendid?

 

Lorenz And Geese.

Konrad Lorenz and his geese showing the effect of imprinting.

 

Imprinting describes any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior.

Imprinting affects subsequent social adjustment and sexual behavior among others. It occurs immediately after birth or early in life. Though critical for the future behavior of the animal, its preferences and aversions, the consequences of imprinting are not as rapid or as irreversible as Lorenz and the early ethologists thought.

Studies of wolf cubs show that although the period of imprinting is longer than in ducks, and most birds, it is just as important. Holding a wolf cub in our hands for three minutes a day in the first 10 days makes all the difference in its behavior towards humans later in life. The same applies to our domestic dogs, even if they are more flexible. The difference is that we have selected dogs for thousands of years for their sociability. They have probably many genes determining this trait, allowing imprinting for longer, or over several periods.

A sensitive period (or critical period) is a limited time in which an event can occur, usually resulting in some transformation. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this time, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.

Evidence suggests that there may be more than one type of a sensitive period. Recent studies point out that the critical phase for sexual imprinting occurs later than that for filial imprinting. Researchers discovered that learning components are more important than previously thought. There is evidence that cumulative learning entails the release of endorphins in the brain providing a comforting feedback and, thus, fixing the association.

As amazed as the camp attendees are with the speedy progress of their training (at the end of the first day, they have gone thru all agility obstacles, including weave poles), what left them flabbergasted today was the limited use of food treats and that we did not use training tools and gadgets at all.

This is training the ethology way, my preferred method of interacting with animals. We create a relationship of mutual trust and respect, with higher benefits than costs, leading by example, meeting the animal half-way, controlling ourselves rather than the animal.

Watch this space, my friends, I will tell you more tomorrow.

 

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On My Way to LA for Guinea Pig Camp

Guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs are intelligent and curious animals, very social and showing excellent learning abilities.

 

I’m on my way to LA for the Guinea Pig Camp hosted by Michael McManus of Ready-Sit-Go. I’m looking forward to spending some time with these wonderful creatures (the Guinea pigs, that is) which have earned my respect and my heart. I have trained so many of them, and it’s never the same. They are all different with their own personality and charm.

I know Michael. He was the trainer of Nam Peum, the Guinea pig from Florida; I wrote about her last year.

 


 

น้ำผึ้ง (nám-pêung), the little Guinea Pig, was born, destined to be snake food. She did not. The first morning, she was clearly disturbed and was could not deal with the obstacles. We gave her a long break and contact, so she felt safe. At three in the afternoon, she was running the course following our fingers.

Lesson learned: don’t make it more difficult than necessary. A bad experience does not result inevitably in trauma. When you face a strong emotional response, resolve it first. Then, return to your plan of action. There was nothing wrong with her learning ability or our plan of action. We just had a temporarily inhibiting emotional response to sort out. Natural selection favors those which cope with adversity. In the evening, we put น้ำผึ้ง in her cage to rest. The next morning, to our surprise, she wasn’t there. Where was she? That’s a story for another time.

I said I was looking forward to seeing the Guinea pigs, and I am. Of course, I’m also looking forward to seeing Michael. He’s a great animal trainer with the right attitude and patience, and always cool. In the evening, we’re gonna drink some beers and play pool at my favorite sports bar and pool hall in Burbank.

By the way, before I forget it, there are still a couple of spots,  should you be interested in participating in the camp. Mail Michael right away at readysitgo@gmail.com.

“My daily blog” has run uninterruptedly for 44 days. I’ll try to write tomorrow, but I can’t promise. It all depends on where I am and whether I have an Internet connection. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, I’ll be back after tomorrow. Be well.

Off to the airport—I have an ocean to cross, a long journey ahead.

 

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Do You Want to Become a Better Dog Trainer?

 

When we had traditional, on-campus programs at the Ethology Institute, every year the new students would invariably fall into two groups: those who wanted to become dog trainers and those who wanted to become horse trainers. Every year, I would tell them the same, “If you want to become good trainers of your favorite species, you’ll have to train other species, you’ll have to gain some perspective.”

In principle, it doesn’t matter what other animals or animal species you train. Cats, rats, parrots, they are all good and they all have a lesson for you to learn. However, there is one little and cute animal that stands to me as our (almost) ideal teacher. It is charming, social, curious, shy, and relatively easy to train. You have probably guessed it. I’m talking about the guinea pig. Today, I’m going to tell you how these little, cute animals can make you a better dog trainer, a better horse trainer, a better animal trainer, and—most importantly—a more ‘complete’ individual. Please, keep reading.

The basic skills you need to train a dog are the same you need to train any other animal. One difference—and this is good news for you—is that (mainly due to our common history) there is no other animal as easy to train as a dog. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much you learn if you only train dogs.

Dogs forgive our mistakes and are nearly always motivated to cooperate. Other species scrutinize us far more thoroughly. We must earn their trust—if they don’t trust us, they won’t cooperate with us. A horse will not follow you if it doesn’t trust you and it takes a lot to earn the trust of a horse (and only a moment to lose it). You can offer it as many carrots as you like, but if it decides you are not someone to be trusted, the best carrots in the world will be to no avail. A cat will blink, at least twice, at you and the treat you offer it before even considering moving into your direction. Then, if it deems your request reasonable, it may just indulge you—otherwise, no deal.

 

Dog and guinea pig

Dog and guinea pig together. Training a guinea pig can make you a better dog trainer (photo letsbefriends.blogspot.com).

 

The guinea pig, a favorite prey of many predators including humans, is social and fearful by nature. We don’t share a common evolutionary history with it as with the dog. You won’t get anything for free. You’ll have to work to gain your guinea pig’s trust and show it that co-operating with you is profitable in both the short and the long term.

Training guinea pigs will teach you the theory of animal learning. You’ll have to be precise and use the right procedures to produce the right behavior. You’ll explore the whole spectrum of operant conditioning, but you’ll be left gasping for more. You’ll find yourself desperately attempting to think like a guinea pig, thus entering the realm of ethology.

You can teach dogs many things without a proper plan. They are so active and eager to please that, sooner or later, they will do something you like, which you can reinforce. With dogs, you can play by ear and sing along, but with other animals, you’ll need to plan. Timing is important when you train your dog, but surprisingly enough, you’ll still achieve acceptable results even if your timing is off. With dogs, it’s like singing a melody out of tune and your friends still recognizing it. With guinea pigs, you’d better sing in tune or they will tacitly suggest you get your act together before going back to them. It’s tough, but it’s also a good lesson about life.

Much like horses, guinea pigs tend to react fearfully when in doubt (the key to their survival throughout their evolutionary history). Displaying composed, self-confident behavior works well, but anything more assertive than that will backfire on you. Dogs, these ever amazing animals, give you a second chance (and understand our bad “accents” in dog language); a horse or a guinea pig hardly ever do so. If you as much as think of trying to bully a guinea pig into doing what you want, it will probably freeze for up to 30 minutes, which is a real stopper for any aspiring trainer.

You’ll learn soon enough that coercion is not the way to go at all. Thus, you’ll learn the secrets of motivation and the beauty of working within and with your environment, rather than attempting to control it, and that in itself will lead you to unexpected and welcomed results.

If they could, I’m sure your dog and your horse would thank the guinea pigs for what they teach you when you train them, for you become, undoubtedly, a much more subtle and balanced trainer. You’ll be in control of yourself rather than the animal, motivating rather than forcing, showing the way rather than fumbling about, achieving results with the least (sometimes even imperceptible) amount of intrusion into your favorite animal’s normal behavior.

If you have a chance, give it a try. We can never learn too much, can we?

 

Animal Learning by Roger Abrantes

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The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training

Confidence comes with success and success comes when you are confident—believe in yourself.

More often than you might realize, your animal training, independently of species, does not succeed because you don’t believe it will. Doubting yourself, your abilities, or the outcome of your behavior has an impact on those with whom you communicate.

Dogs, horses, cats, guinea pigs, just to mention a few, are experts in reading your body language. They will detect the slightest hint of doubt. If you don’t know or aren’t sure of what you want or what you’re doing, how do you want the animal to feel safe by following your instructions?

Here’s your plan of action: work it all out first and then do it believing fully that you will succeed. Don’t worry about the animal. Control yourself and your emotions. If you’re good, it will end up good.

“What if I don’t succeed, anyway?” you may now ask.

Tough luck, sometimes it does not work! In that case, return to square one, re-think your plan and go for it once more—and, as always, believing in yourself and that you’ll succeed.

Enjoy your training—but, first and foremost, enjoy spending time with another living creature.

"Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself" from the movie "Confidence" by Roger Abrantes.

“Relax, enjoy, believe in yourself” from the movie “Confidence” by Roger Abrantes.

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Can Two Training Methods Be Equally Good?

Treat Training Dog Cartoon

I receive many emails with questions about animal behavior. Most of them involve practical issues, but, now and then, someone poses a more complex question. Here is my answer to one of the latter, one I’d like to share with you because it deals with important issues for our understanding of animal behavior and training.

Dear ….,

Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to clarify a few issues. By no means, I see animals as biological robots or do I regard the Skinnerian approach as the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, quite the contrary (please, consider the following passages from “Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training”).

“In fact, I suspect that [communication] even involves more than what science can describe with the intrinsic limitations of its key concepts and methods, no matter how stringent they are.”

“It seems to me, therefore, that our goal must not be to oppress or suppress emotions, but rather control them and use them advantageously. Emotional arousal proves to be necessary to learn and the right amount of emotional arousal even shows to increase the efficiency of learning processes.” (A very non-Skinnerian statement, I would say).

As to my own method to analyze learning processes in artificial set-ups (like in animal training), I write: “In a crude sense, SMAF is an oversimplification of complex processes […] certainly not an attempt to reduce complex mechanisms to a few formulas. In the end, [its] value depends solely on its successful application to solving practical problems; beyond that it has no value.”

Operant conditioning (when we use it correctly) is an efficient model of behavior for animal training because we control the conditionals to a certain extent (as Pavlov explains in its original writings, not the subsequent translations). Whilst operant conditioning is adequate to analyze behavior at a particular level, beyond that it is too crude a tool. To do that, we need evolutionary models and concepts like variation, selection, adaptation, fitness, function, evolutionary strategies, ESS (evolutionarily stable strategies), cost and benefit, etc. Thus, my approach to behavior is based on evolutionary biology and philosophically sound argumentation.

Greetings,

RAA

The core of the argument is reductionism, the view that we can reduce complex processes to the sum of its simpler parts. In a sense, all science is reductionistic. We attempt to explain complex processes with a few notions well organized in little boxes. That is a process that seems to suit our human brain particularly well.

However, we must bear in mind that our interpretations, independently of how good they are, are just our pictures of an elusive reality. They suit our particular umwelten but definitely not all. They explain parts of it from particular angles so we can make sense of it. Newton and Einstein, the classical example, are (probably) both right, only explaining reality at two different levels.

There’s nothing wrong about being a reductionist if only we do not get greedy and attempt to explain far too much with far too little as in, “That’s it, this is the way things are. Period.” Simplifying gets us often to the point, which complicating and oversimplifying, both have missed.

In animal training, one theory or one method can be as good as another depending on its foundations, approaches, what it attempts to explain and what practical purposes it intends to serve. If both are based on reliable evidence, use well-defined terms, and are logically sound, there’s little to choose between one or the other.

If only animal trainers would understand that, I believe we would forgo many senseless disputes.

Then again, we can brag about being the most emotional creatures on this big blue marble of ours, can’t we?

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The Most Powerful Training Tool

Roger Abrantes in 1985 working with Silas, the wolf cub.

Roger Abrantes in 1985 interacting with Silas, the wolf cub—creating a relationship.

Those were the days—yours truly in 1985 with Silas, the wolf cub. Notice the whistle hanging around my neck. I used it as a conditioned positive reinforcer (yes, the precursor of the clicker). Silas preferred, though, my own verbal reinforcer (“dygtig”)* because I always associated it with a friendly body language and facial expression. It meant acceptance. For wolves, much more sensitive to social situations than dogs, acceptance is the ultimate social reinforcer; for the cubs, it is vital.

These were the first observations that led me to suspect that the verbal and the mechanic conditioned positive reinforcers were by no means the same. Since parts of the verbal reinforcer (the body language and facial expression) were untaught,  I later coined the term “semi-conditioned reinforcer” and classified it as such.

If you ask me today, I’ll answer you without hesitating that the most powerful tool you have when working with animals is yourself. If you control yourself, your body language, your facial expressions and the little, you say, you’ll achieve what you pretend and more.

After all, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Interacting with someone is not merely a question of conditioning a series of behaviors—it is, foremost, creating a relationship.

You can see me illustrate this in the DVD “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know” shot by the Tawzers in Montana at a seminar I gave. Watch the trailer here. You will also find other short movies demonstrating the same, various places on this site. Feel free to browse as you please, watch the movies and read the free articles.
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* “Dygtig” [ˈdøgdi] is a Danish word and means “clever.” It is, apparently, a good sound as a reinforcer, I discovered many years ago.

Animal Training My Way

Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism by Roger Abrantes.
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Earn your Diploma in Animal Behavior and Training paying your fees in monthly installments
CPDT: EUR 110 — CACE: EUR 132 — CAAE: EUR 214
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