Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Is A Thinking Dog?

Liz and I had an interesting discussion last night after watching a DVD on platform training and clickers.
Traditional training creates a dog who listens to and responds to humans, but doesn't specifically know how to make decisions based on environmental input. Clicker training - strict clicker training like I've seen in most of these DVD's and the clicker trainers here in town - also create a dog that listens to and responds to humans and doesn't truly know how to make decisions. I know that sounds odd since clicker training is suppose to create a thinking dog, however, the only thinking I see in most clicker trained dogs is "what movement do I make to get the treat". not "there is a cat and there is my human - I choose human". I suppose I look at all things based on behavior not obedience, but what I see with most clicker trainers is just a gentler way of completely controlling a dog.
Does that make any sense?
I want my dogs to respond to their environment based on choices and decisions of the past in similar circumstances - which is what we as humans do and what evolution encourages. I know most (99%) of even trainers, not to mention the lay person, say that can't be done, but it can if the dog is allowed to make it's own decisions and choices and not forced (whether it's with a shock collar or a clicker) to respond only in the direction the human wants, it does happen. What I want is for my dogs to respond to their environment like a dog (mostly with their nose) and modify their choices based on knowledge of what the human has helped them do and decide in the past about the world we all live in. What I see in most training - force or reinforement - is a weakening of a dog's natural abilities. Most training takes choice away from a dog. What needs to happen is to strengthen a dog's natural senses, natural sense of environemental and social balance and then add the knowledge of a human created world.

I include clicker training in this because so many clicker trainers never look beyond the mechanics of "wait for a close approximation of the final behavior, click and treat". Everytime that click and treat happens, it breaks down the dog's choices as to what to do next. I've had dogs do a tricky behavior like circle around a cone in three tries compared to 50 or 60 that I've seen on DVD's teaching the same behavior. I can only attribute it to the fact that I don't interrupt the dog when it continues to move in the direction I'm teaching just because it moved a fraction of a inch closer this time.

It takes great observation skills to see what decisions the dog is making or about to make. You need to "know" what the dog is communicating and be able to respond immediately once the decision is about to change. It's a change in engagement, in interest, in curiosity. In nature, a dog will only stay engaged with a new object long enough to determine if it's a threat, if it's food or if it's a female in heat. Once that is determined, the interest and engagement wanes and then disappears and that object is filed away as benign. In our world, we want the dog to respond in various ways to objects, spaces, scents and sounds that in the natural world would be ignored. We have to create engagement by paring a totally uninteresting object with either food or something fun. If you don't know what the interest level of your dog is, then the only thing you can do is control the dog and her responses. Do rapid click and treat for small movements, tiny pieces of engagement, controls the dogs responses. It does not create a thinking dog. I won't even mention what shock collars, leash corrections, alpha roles, etc don't create.

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