Living and Learning with Animals: The Fundamental Principles and Procedures of Teaching and Learning
This course, taught by the incredible Susan Friedman, Ph. D., Department of Psychology, Utah State University, is the most valuable course that I have ever taken. As much as my Karen Pryor Academy certification means to me, if I had to choose between the two courses, this is the one I would pick.
It is easy to learn the mechanical skills and training options of clicker training; it is much more difficult to learn what their impact is on the animal being trained. I care about that! The KPA courses are about training, with some study of behavior covered as well. Susan’s course, and the courses at NEI, are about behavior, with the study of training skills included.
This is a university-level course about applied behavioral analysis. It was a tough course for me, and a little scary, because I have never attended a university, so I am not convinced I have that kind of a brain. But, in speaking with Susan directly about my concerns she made me a promise: If I would trust her enough to take the course, she would see to it that I was successful in it. The course is designed for the student to be successful; do the work, and the TAs will keep giving feedback until the concepts make sense, but I didn’t know that.
The course is entirely online and is offered twice a year. At the time that I completed it, there were over 100 students participating from all over the world. The course includes three hours a week of live lectures by Susan. In order to attend these, some of the students participated at 4:00 am, because of the difference in time zones. I will probably repeat this course annually because there is a lot to learn. As my own training education journey progresses, I assimilate the concepts differently.
I was first exposed to the concepts in this course when I attended the Professional Contemporary Animal Training and Management Workshop course in Florida, in November 2022. I completed Susan’s course in March 2023, and later that same month went back to Florida for another week-long course offered by NEI. This is the blog post link for the November NEI course:
Being Trained by Rufio – My Natural Encounters Adventure: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/being-trained-by-rufio-my-natural-encounters-adventure
They allowed me to participate in a one-hour podcast. This is the link to that recording:
My LGD Podcast with Natural Encounters, Inc.!: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/my-lgd-podcast-with-natural-encounters-inc
So how does this all show up in my real-world teaching, training, and writing? I’ll take you on a journey and show you that, using one of the most commonly taught behaviors for dogs: Sit. Everyone knows how to teach a dog to sit, right? Pretty basic. But ah, there is more, much more.
“Creating an environment where the animal approaches consequences
rather than avoid them.”
The ABC’s of applied behavioral analysis
All behavior is actually loops of behavior, endlessly until the animal dies.
The antecedent is the environment around the animal, the stimulus for the behavior. Behavior doesn’t just happen; it is contextual. In order to understand why the behavior happened, you need to know the context in which it happened. For instance, if I touch a hot stove burner, the stove burner is the antecedent, that I jump back is the behavior, and the consequence is pain. If I touch a stove burner that isn’t hot, a different behavior and consequence will happen. Sounds pretty simple, right? But here’s where it gets interesting:
The consequence of the behavior is also the antecedent for the next behavior. This is why it is so important for a trainer set the stage for the next behavior, because that can be influenced. It hasn’t happened yet. The behavior that just happened is in the past.
Understanding reinforcers and aversive
The behavior of dogs is designed to gain something or to avoid/escape something.
There are primary reinforcers and conditioned (learned) reinforcers. If you take away reinforcers, the dog may experience this as aversive, or not, largely dependent on his learned associations with them in the context of the current situation. Let’s take a look:
It is common knowledge among most trainers and owners of dogs that food is a primary reinforcer. After all, Click/Treat is a pretty familiar phrase in training circles. But take a look; food is only half the story. An animal’s need for control is a biological need, just as food is. Another way to say it is that control is making the world behave; having power.
Dogs care about control every minute of every day. In the course of a day, dogs eat 5% of the day, as my guess. So, which reinforcer do you think is the more powerful one? In my experience with LGDs, I have found that control is.
Taking reinforcers away from animals is generally accepted as being aversive to them.
Teaching “Sit” – Before LLA
Now, back to teaching “Sit.” If I put a leash on the dog to train with, I have taken some of his control away. If I take him from his partner and livestock, I have taken some control away. But I have treats! I have cheese! Will that be enough? Is the reinforcement value of the cheese greater than the aversive weight of taking away control? Often, with LGDs, the answer to that question is “No.” So, I may be starting my training session with the dog already at an emotional deficit.
How do you teach “Sit?” Some trainers hold a piece of a food item, such as cheese, over the head of the dog. This is called “luring.” Sometimes it works, but if this dog is not food motivated because of the emotional deficit I just described, the lure of food probably won’t work. Some people pull up on the leash while pushing down on the rump of the dog; both actions are aversive to the dog. If the dog learns how to sit on cue in this process, the cue will always be connected to the aversive history of the behavior. Cheese may also now have an aversive event attached to it.
The process I have described is a common way to teach this behavior and to train in general. It fits the positive reinforcement criteria because no punishment was used. But, as you can see, that does not mean that the dog’s experience of the training was all positive.
In the wonderful book “Beware of the Dog – Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs” by Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, she shares a phrase that I love.
She refers to “priming” a dog. In her work with reactive dogs, or aggressive dogs, before she works on any of the behaviors that may be difficult for these dogs, she first gets them in a very good mood! She plays games with them or does easy behaviors with them that have a high reinforcement history. The dog’s chances of being mentally able to handle a trigger that in the past has led him to reactive or aggressive behavior, are much better because of this protocol.
So, back to the dog I just taught to sit. I think he is primed, but not in the direction I want to go. Behavior happens in loops, remember, so when the dog sits, this is the antecedent for the next behavior. Learning theory to the rescue – there is a better way!
Capturing “Sit” – Thank You, LLA!
My strong preference in most of the training I do with LGDs is to train off-leash, quite probably in the field they are working in and often in the presence of their partner dog. There are no aversives for the dog in this set-up that I am aware of, although if I am working with a dog trained previously by someone other than me, I may learn something about that through the dog’s body language in our situation.
If I see any stress at all, I make changes until I don’t see stress. If I can’t make that happen in just a few moments, I end the training session. Now I have more information about this dog. I need a new training plan, an easier one or one that the dog doesn’t have a history with. For sure, I will change the way I cue the dog. I will use a hand signal, rather than the verbal cue of “Sit” because it is likely the verbal cue is how the dog was taught before. Dogs can learn the same behavior cued in many different ways. The verbal cue is “poisoned,” so I will use a different one.
Why Clicking and Correction Doesn’t Work – The Poisoned Cue: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/why-clicking-and-correction-used-together-doesn-t-work-the-poisoned-cue
I like to “capture” a sit. I set up the environment so that the dog is likely to settle in front of me at some point. I’m ready. When he sits, just as his behind lowers to the ground, I click – and then I toss the treat away from me. I also toss, or deliver by hand, a treat to his partner. The partner dog gets paid for choosing to be near enough to be involved. He knows the click was not for him because I was not looking at him; I was looking into the eyes of the dog that sat.
Because this was a fun event, the dog I tossed the treat to will probably come right back to me, which sets him up to offer the behavior again; it sets up the antecedent for the next behavior. I might do a maximum of three repetitions of this behavior, and then I would end the session. I can take a break for a few minutes and then start again if I want to. The typical length of a training session with an LGD for me is less than a minute per session.
It is easy to teach manding to puppies. These blog posts will tell you about that. I taught ALL my puppies to mand, beginning when they were 3-4 weeks old. Reinforcing both eye contact and manding at this early age means that these two behaviors become default behaviors for the dogs as adults.
Manding -What It Is: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/manding-part-1
Manding - Why Teach It?: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/manding-why-teach-it
If I capture “Sit,” I am reinforcing for offered behavior only, so there is no aversive aspect to it because all of it was the dog’s choice. I rarely attach a cue to “Sit” because I prefer that my dogs mand; they like it too. A dog that mands is primed for the next behavior because doing so was his choice. He is also probably happily gazing into my eyes, which I can reinforce as well. What a deal, training becomes a happy party. This is the kind of training I want to do, the kind of trainer I want to be.
The blog post below has more information about how to use reinforcers:
My Education Continues – Primary Reinforcers: https://www.bensonmaremmas.com/post/my-education-continues-primary-reinforcers
I hope you are intrigued by what I have shared here. What I have learned at NEI, and in this LLA course, have changed the way I train forever.,