“Don’t Shoot the Dog”

January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

This book is worth a much, much longer review, but alas there are so many other things to do, so just a brief one.

Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training is an oldie. First published in 1984 it was part of the whole start of clicker training in the dog training world. But although being a time-honoured classic, the book is worth reading–or, if you’ve already done so, even rereading. It’s fun, and it manages to pack a whole lot of useful knowledge into a really readable little book. I’ve been reading, for the first time, the 2002 revised edition, reprinted in 2009.

Pryor explains the principles of positive reinforcement and clicker training. Clear and entertaining–the animal in training in her ‘case studies’ often is us, with our bad habits. For anyone who wants to understand animal behaviour. If nothing else, read the “10 Laws of Shaping” and the “8 Methods to Get Rid of Behaviour You Don’t Want”. These two sections are a good primer on real positive reinforcement training, showing the fallout of the use of punishment, corrections or any other aversives, for that matter.

Get a clicker, or get out your old one and brush it off, or remind yourself of what other marker signal you’ve used (Yes!), and have fun with your dog.

Playing around with Tuhi.

Playing around with Tuhi. Photo courtesy of Sybill Lieber.


How a hot dog plays

January 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve just signed my dog Tuhi and myself up for a 12 week online Tricks course with dog agility champion Silvia Trkman. It’ll start on 21 January. As part of it, participants send in videos training the current lesson with their dogs.
I’ve never before videoed anything, let alone edited clips, so that’ll be a whole different level of fun. So I’ve taken my phone on our walk this afternoon, and now just had my first video editing session. If there is anything fun among the videos I’ll make for the course, I might share it here. Or I thought it might be fun anyway to start ‘collecting’ the many tricks Tuhi already plays with as vids and share them here. We’ll see.

But if I do that, I want to start it all with a video of Tuhi just playing. I love training with Tuhi, but I love most us just walking together and playing around while we are out and about, and watching Tuhi and seeing what kind of play she loves.

It’s also a good reminder for me when I train with her that a lot of behaviours we use in tricks our dogs actually don’t really technically have to learn. They know how to ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘dig’, ‘jump’. As Karen Pryor writes in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog, the difficulty in learning skills (such as required for tricks or agility) is usually not caused by physical requirements but by the absence of good shaping procedures*. Working on my training skills therefore for me comes first, before I can be my dog’s coach. But training for me also is about how to get these behaviours into our interactions with our dogs and be able to share them for whatever activity we do together, whether it’s agility, obedience, freestyle, or just fooling around together with silly and funny tricks. So that the fun and the skills become part of a mutual vocabulary we develop and share with our dogs.

Tuhi is just playing at the beach on a hot Wellington summer day (yes, sometimes that happens) — and look at that focus and motivation and fun. That’s how I want her to look when I’m working with her.

The video is a little bit long. But that’s just a good excuse to listen to that song. I haven’t listened to that song in such a long time. It still makes me think of summer-time and wanna jump on a skateboard and eat ice-cream. Yes, skateboard, not surfboard; I’m scared of sharks. And just to add to my bad video editing, I’ve left the wind in the soundtrack. Because it still is windy Wellington, even on a nice hot day :)



* Shaping is a process in positive reinforcement training used to get all those cool performances and behaviours, such as a dog doing a summersault, or a human iceskating and learning to glide on one foot, or a dolphin jumping through a hoop. The technical term for it is “successive approximation” and it consists of taking every little step, movement, etc. in the right direction and shifting it, step by step (and behaviour by behaviour) to an ultimate goal, rewarding/reinforcing every single step on the way.

Clicker training and Margaret H. Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. 2nd ed. 2009.

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have been enjoying learning agility with my young dog Tuhi for a few months now. She is a highly energetic collie x huntaway, and really just needed a job. We tried other dog sports, like obedience, but neither of us are doing the ‘obedience’ word very well. Also, for my dog training, I want to learn to work with my dog, and I love clicker training and shaping in order to teach Tuhi to think for herself, rather than just follow my ‘commands’. Clicker training is a great tool for us to discover just how much a dog can do. I want a friend, not a slave, so a lot of the traditional dog training that works on the premise that the dog has to obey your commands, no matter what, doesn’t really make sense to me.

So, clicker training and working with ‘cues’ rather than commands it is for Tuhi and me. In clicker training, a cue is not a command or an order. It is a stimulus signaling that offering a specific behaviour may earn a reward. Clicker training is based on scientific learning theory (and mostly on operant and classical conditioning) and uses positive reinforcement, showing the dog the behaviours that work. If the dog doesn’t do the ‘right’ thing, nothing bad happens other than that either nothing happens (extinction) or that the opportunity for a reward disappears (negative punishment). Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh in their fantastic book Agility Right From the Start give a great, short description of clicker training:

1) reward what’s’ right’
2) ignore what’s ‘wrong’
3) create situations where your dog is likely to get it right.

This is also what dog training generally boils down to, at least for me.

When Tuhi and I first stumbled into an agility class, Tuhi loved it and I was immediately hooked by the fun we had together. There is nothing like the huge grin on both human and dog faces when a team has just learned tackling a new obstacle together.

Anyway, lots and lots to learn (mostly for me to get my footwork right), and I’ve been looking for books and material to help. I’ll write reviews about the things I read and DVDs I watch to support our training as I go. The first book I read about dog agility was Margaret Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. I didn’t think it was great, or particularly useful for our own agility training, but still one can learn from everything, so here is my review of the book.

It is a manual-style introduction to agility and how to teach your dog agility, which doesn’t go very much into the details of dog (& human) learning. There are however some ideas, or rather assumptions, that made me wonder and think, particularly after recently having read some other books on dog behaviour.

What I found interesting was the point Bonham makes about that teaching agility is learning the obstacles and learning handling and sequencing, for both the dog and the human. She emphasises a lot that agility is a team sport and that both dog and human need to learn to work as a team.

It is on this background that she introduces some positive reinforcement training techniques, including clicker training. But all of this remains relatively general, on the level of get the behaviour and reward. I do, however, like how she bases everything she says about training on the law of primacy, that once a student (human or animal) learns something (correct or not), that lesson stays with the student. “The secret of dog training”, she says, “is to teach the appropriate behavior the first time” and not to give the dog a chance to fail. It reminds me what I have read of clicker training in Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind, and I think it makes similarly the point that we need to think through our training techniques and goals, rather than simply expect a certain behaviour from the dog without understanding the processes of learning behind it.

In the opening to the section on “Sequencing and handling” Bonham talks about the need in agility to establish a rhythm between you and your dog. I like this idea, because it is all about learning to watch one’s dog and “listen” to it. Bad runs in agility are most often the handler’s fault. The handler might not have trained the dog properly, signalled the dog incorrectly and confused the dog. Or the handler might have asked the dog something they haven’t learned yet, not understood completely yet, or is incapable of doing (because it is tired or sore, or hot and needs a drink or feel sick). This is a good reminder that training a dog is a lot about knowing the dog well enough to understand it’s nature and how it feels. All of this, as Bonham keeps pointing out, is part of developing good handling practices and to avoid bad techniques, and it takes time and practice. For me that is the most crucial point. Dog training is about developing skills and learning, for both dogs and humans, it takes time, and it will create a relationship that has to be respected. Too many people I see expect instant fixes and instant behaviour—and only often from the dog’s side. And, finally, Bonham emphasises fun as a crucial part of handling practices and skills. Agility as a team sport should be fun together, and not just pushed through from the human’s competitive expectations. Again, it is important to learn to “listen” to the dog. As part of this, the book offers sections with useful information on such important issues as nutrition and pain for the agility dog.

Bonham doesn’t talk about all of this in too much detail beyond the introductory—and as someone rather new to dog training I find myself wanting more details and more “showing”. But it does set me thinking, and there is a video and blog entry by Patricia McConnell which for me demonstrates the above: the importance of “honouring your dog”. The video is McConnell exercising with her dog in preparation for surgery, and it shows how she is paying attention to the dog’s messages and limitations, ie. where he shows that he is uncomfortable or maybe in pain.

This leads me to what I disagreed with in the book or was surprised by. It left many questions for me about the details of learning and training generally, and more particularly about the relationship between positive reinforcement and correction. Bonham talks a lot about the need for correction; she also says, “Always enforce a command” (40). I’ve just been reading Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind. So it strikes me that after all the talk of positive reinforcement Bonham ends up talking about commands again, and about enforcing them. I wonder what the “right” way to enforce would be? What struck me most in Pryor’s book is the point about avoiding poisoning a cue—and the relationship with the dog. There is a photo twice in the Bonham book of a man “enforcing” a “sit” by standing right over the dog, pulling upright on the dog’s collar, and pushing down the dog’s rear with his hand. It’s in the back cover and it is inside the book in the training section and captioned with “Training a dog using positive methods is fun and rewarding for both you and your dog” (38). I would have probably never noticed this before, but after reading Karen Pryor’s book this now really grates with me, “making” the dog sit.

The question of physical corrections, punishment, and the like really bugs me and constantly challenges my thinking about dog training. From what I have seen in books and in training classes at various clubs and places there still is a lot of physical corrections in positive reinforcement training. My understanding of positive reinforcement training is that there is no use of aversives of any form. In a way that makes it much harder for us because we need to prepare our training plans and control the learning situations so much more carefully in order to set up the dog for success. And it might take longer. And dogs among themselves use punishment and aversives, don’t they. So maybe we should? Maybe, but in my case, I don’t speak dog language very well, so I better leave that alone. And every time I see a dog in a class or at agility working with its human partner and looking keen and confident and like pure happiness that happened to have taken form in the shape of a dog, and then I see a dog trying to work with its human and getting yanked on the lead or yelled at and crumble into a confused heap I know that my way in dog training is to learn enough about dogs and their learning to not need any aversives.

Tuhi’s interpretation of circle work for agility training.
Photo courtesy of Bill Main.


Bertilsson, Eva and Emelie Johnson Vegh. Agility Right From the Start: The Ultimate Training Guide to America’s Fastest Growing Dog Sport. Sunshine Books Inc. 2010.
Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash Blog: Willie’s exercises and honoring your dog.
Karen Pryor Clicker Training — http://www.clickertraining.com

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