News: Karen B. London
It’s more than just a cute trick
Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.
It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.
Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.
Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)
There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.
In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.
Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.
I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”, “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.
Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.
Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sponsored by Karen Pryor Clicker Training
If you've ever dreamed of becoming a dog trainer or are already a dog trainer looking to further your education, you won’t want to miss the world’s largest all-positive training conference: ClickerExpo 2014!
Held every year in January and March, ClickerExpo features leading-edge training seminars taught by top trainers from premier animal institutions and schools from all over the world, all brought together by training innovator and author Karen Pryor. Learn the all-positive training techniques used by top animal trainers to teach any animal almost anything. At ClickerExpo you can practice teaching your dog to retrieve (not eat!) a hot dog and watch live training sessions by the faculty.
In addition to courses focusing directly on obedience, agility, service, and behavior management and science, you’ll find a wealth of in-depth courses that apply across disciplines. Teachers and attendees listen, practice, and learn from each other for up to three days of unparalleled interaction in over 60 Sessions and Learning Labs.
ClickerExpo is coming to Virginia March 28-30, 2014 at the beautiful Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel. Can’t make it to Virginia? Look for a 1-Day Live Broadcast in select US cities. For more information or to register, visit www.clickerexpo.com.
“I thought ClickerExpo was a fantastic experience to connect with other trainers with like-minded styles and to hear new ideas that people are working on.”
News: Karen B. London
Dog-related plans for 2014
Years ago, my sister’s New Year’s resolution was to give up New Year’s resolutions, and she was one of the few people who stuck to her plan. (Success rates are generally less than 10%.) Her secret was resolving to do something that she wanted to do anyway. If your resolutions for 2014 are dog-related, make success more likely by choosing to focus on one or a few things that are of real interest to you.
Simple ideas for dog-related resolutions are plentiful. Here are 10 possibilities.
1. Leave that cell phone in your pocket on walks so that you are truly present and spending time with your dog. It’s the time you spend together that builds the relationship, and this is one of the easiest ways to enjoy each other’s company.
2. Try a new activity with your dog. Classes in agility, tracking, fly ball are common in many areas. Hiking, weight pulling, dock jumping, herding, lure coursing and canine freestyle are just a few of the other possibilities.
3. Provide better nutrition for your dog. This is a big task for most of us, but even a few simple steps can make a difference. Try a higher quality dog food, add fresh vegetables to your dog’s diet or vow to measure your dog’s food for every meal so there’s no risk of overfeeding.
4. Give back to the canine community. There are so many ways to help out such as walking an elderly neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a shelter or rescue, fostering a dog, or giving money to an organization that improves the lives of animals.
5. Teach your dog something new. Practical training skills such as walking nicely on a leash, waiting at the door or a solid stay all pay big dividends. Other possibilities are to teach your dog a new game so you can play together more. Fetch, tug, find it, hide and seek, and chase games are all options, though depending on your dog, not every game may be a good fit.
6. Make plans for your dog in the event that you die first. Financial planning so you can provide for your dog when you are no longer here as well as making arrangements for someone to be the guardian for your dog are two important steps.
7. Give your dog more exercise. This can be daunting so plan to make one small improvement to start. Perhaps add 10 minutes to a weekend walk or set up a play date with a dog buddy a couple of times a month. When it comes to increasing activity, every little bit helps, so taking one step in the right direction is a wonderful goal at this, or any, time of year.
8. Take better care of your dog’s teeth. Consult with your veterinarian about a dental cleaning or about brushing at home. Dental care helps improve overall health and can make your dog’s breath more pleasant, too.
9. Make plans in case of a medical emergency. Whether it is putting aside a little in savings each month or investigating pet insurance, the peace of mind that you’ve got it covered in the event of an emergency is worth a lot.
10. Go new places with your pet. Novelty is great fun for most dogs, so try to go a few new places this year. Perhaps a new pet store or a new hiking trail will provide your dog with an experience that is really enjoyable.
Love them or hate them, New Year’s resolutions are common this time of year. Do your plans for 2014 include any dog-oriented New Year’s resolutions?
News: Guest Posts
It’s that time of year when good doggy manners manner. Sophia Yin, DVM has these simple pointers for teaching how not to jump up on your guests, but how to be good hosts and greet them by sitting politely. Her techniques, like using high reinforcement rates, can be easily applied to other training essentials, like the “holy grail” of a solid recall. Give it a try! —Editor’s Note
Everyone knows that you should reward good behavior and ignore bad behaviors, right? So if your dog jumps on you, ignore the jumping and then reward with a treat when he sits, right? WRONG! This answer is wrong enough that if you're one of my interns and, after your first several sessions, you still think it’s right, you will not be an intern for much longer. Why? Because if this is the information you provide to clients, many will fail and turn to more punitive methods. The following are 5 essential tips for approaching problem behaviors such as jumping.
Tip 1: Don’t ignore the unwanted behavior. Remove the rewards for unwanted behavior instead. It turns out that if you ignore unwanted behavior, you may accidentally be rewarding it. You should instead remove rewards for unwanted behavior-which is very different. For instance, most clients complain that they are ignoring their dog when he jumps but they aren’t getting the results they want. They don't realize that the dog does not perceive their actions as removal of attention. Their hands are still dangling like tug toys or they are still walking around which makes them look interactive, see the video below. What owners should be told is to remove what their dog wants, attention in this case, within 0.5 seconds and do it in a way that the dog perceives that they have removed their attention. That may mean standing up completely straight and holding both arms folded against their body while they stand silent and stationary. Or it may just mean pulling their hands away and back to their body. If they remove their attention in a clear manner, they will see a quick and clear response from their dog.
Tip 2: Train the desired behavior first. It’s essential that the humans know to first train the good behavior—sitting politely—or it could take the dog forever to figure out what else will earn rewards besides jumping. A five or ten-minute training session where the dog earns 10-50 rewards is generally adequate.
Tip 3: Use a high reinforcement rate first. Then quickly and systematically reduce and vary the rate. Once the dog is sitting, the owners need to reward at a high reinforcement rate. Giving just one treat for sitting often won't hack it. The first treat you give is for sitting, but additional treats are for remaining seated so that Rover doesn’t just get up and try to jump again. At first, the treats should come rapidly—enough to keep Rover seated—but as soon as Rover is sitting stably at that treat interval, the interval should be increased and varied. This process should be repeated until Rover is sitting automatically and remaining stably seated. Then the focus should be on switching to other rewards such as petting and praise.
Tip 4: Use a flash lure to prevent Rover from getting the first jump in. If your dog tends to jump on you and then sit afterwards, you should change your strategy FAST so that you don't accidentally reward this chain of behaviors—jump then sit. You can add in what I call a flash lure before Rover has a chance to jump. As he’s running over to you but before he has a chance to jump (preferably when he’s about 2 steps away), suddenly flash a treat right to his nose level by just straightening your arm. This will cause him to stop will all four feet on the floor. When he's completely stationary, you can quickly bring the treat all the way back to your body and clearly out of his reach so he knows he doesn't get it yet. Once he sits, then he gets the treat.
Tip 5: Practice a lot in a short period of time. Because your goal is to develop a new greeting habit with your dog, it’s essential that you practice a lot over a short period of time. For instance, if you set up the situation where your dog is excited to see you five times a day and each time he earns 10-20 rewards and never has a chance to jump then by tomorrow he will probably be sitting automatically in this situation. By the end of the week, the good behavior should be a habit!
That's, of course, assuming that in between your practice sessions he didn't have a chance to get rewards for the opposite behavior!
These are some important subtleties that can help you get behavior changes quickly. It’s important to apply these principles to all training exercises to get the fastest progress.
Used with permission from Dr. Sophia Yin, visit her on drsophiayin.com
A great story out of the UK about the “Woof to Wash”—a new invention that turns a washing machine into one that can be operated by a dog. It makes it rather simple to train service dogs to help disabled people to do their laundry with it. Dogs unlock the machine using a “pawprint” pad, then they pull a rope to open the door, close it with their noses and then bark to start it going. These dogs can even strip beds and fill laundry baskets, and then load and empty the machine too. Amazing, isn’t it?
Inventor, John Middleton had seen a video from the nonprofit, Support Dogs, showing how a dog can strip a bed and load a washing machine, so he thought that he could go one step further and come up with a “bark-activated” machine itself. So with a team of engineers and with the help of Miele, the home appliance maker, they completed this project in little over two weeks.
Support Dogs has trained service dogs using voice commands and hand signals so they can help their owners fetch post, turn on light switches, open doors, assist in dressing and undressing—and now do a complete laundry cycle
As Rita Howson, its director of operations, hailed the bark-activated washing machine and praised John for coming up with a simplified bespoke machine for their clients.
She said “A normal washing machine can be very challenging so the single programme machine is very helpful.”
News: Karen B. London
Events include webinars and contests
The focus of the fourth annual Train Your Dog Month in January 2014 is on training the family dog with the manners necessary to improve the daily life of both people and dogs. The basic skills are those in the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT).
In honor of Train Your Dog Month, APDT will offer free webinars to anyone who is interested in learning more about teaching basic skills to dogs. The behaviors that will be covered include sit, down, stay, coming when called, loose-leash walking, and wait. Additionally, there will be Facebook events promoting the value of taking dogs to training classes and the quality-of-life advantages enjoyed when dogs know basic behaviors and can perform them when asked.
In addition to webinars and chats on Facebook, there are contests to celebrate and support this event. Two of them involve the creation of videos, so get ready to find your inner filmmaker! The Training Testimonials contest is open to anyone, so whether your credentials consist of being a dog guardian or being an experienced professional dog trainer, you can enter. Awards and $25 VISA gift cards will be given to the three people who create the best one-minute or shorter videos of testimonials about the improved relationship and quality of life due to training your dog. Winning videos will be those that best illustrate the benefits of training a dog to the general public.
One contest that is only open to APDT members involves making a C.L.A.S.S. “Viral” Video. The object is to show the everyday dog guardian the basic principles of the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program in two minutes or less. The winner will be given free registration to the 2014 APDT Conference.
Having trained dogs personally and professionally for many years, I’m a huge believer in the value of having dogs who are trained well. It’s a lot of work, but also a labor of love to train your dog and teach good manners. It’s also a great kindness since it really can make your dog’s life better. It’s easier to give trained dogs freedom, to take them all kinds of places, and to allow them to be a greater part of your life. Also, the ability to communicate what you’d like your dog to do minimizes the frustration, misunderstandings and danger that can damage quality of life and put a strain on the relationship.
Train Your Dog Month is a great way to begin a whole new year of training your dog!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Attentiveness matters for safety and convenience.
Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.
If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.
We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.
Putting Attention on Cue
The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.
In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.
This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.
The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.
Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.
Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.
Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.
When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)
This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.
Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.
It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.
News: Karen B. London
Boy, did I misread the situation!
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be really wrong about something. I’m not someone who always needs to be right, which is lucky, because I was amusingly off the mark this time.
We have several different mail carriers for the route on which I live, including some regular substitutes. I recognize them all, though our interactions are limited to the hello, how-are-you, and thank you sort of exchanges. Then, a little while back, I noticed that one of the mailmen was acting a bit odd around me. He hesitated when he saw me, sometimes looked down avoiding eye contact, and generally seemed a bit uncomfortable. He sometimes seemed embarrassed, but he also seemed to be staring at me in his mirror if I came out to get the mail after he passed.
I tried to convince myself that I was imagining it, but that didn’t work. I’m a trained behaviorist as well as a very social member of society, and something just wasn’t quite right. He seemed more interested in me than was appropriate, and he certainly knew where I lived. It was making me feel very uncomfortable.
Finally, one day when I was outside cooling down after a run, he pulled the mail truck over by where I was, looked right at me, and said, “Karen, I have a question for you.” I waited, feeling sure that this would not be good.
Then, he said, “Do you work with dogs?” When I said that I was a behaviorist and trainer, he asked if I would mind if he asked me a question, to which I agreed. The question was about a dog in his family who was very friendly, but who jumped up a lot during greetings, especially when anybody came through the front door. We talked for a bit about what he could do to change the dog’s behavior, and in the next week or two, we checked in about the dog’s progress, which was rapid.
From the day he asked me about the dog, our interactions returned to being normal—friendly and relaxed. Here I thought something sinister was going on, when he simply wanted to ask me about his dog, but clearly felt unsure about whether he should. (It’s surely the case that because they see the sort of mail we receive, all of our mail carriers know way more about us than we know about them!)
He knew he needed help, but seemed unsure about asking for it from someone on his route. I love that he wanted to improve his dog’s behavior and I love that his dog is doing so well. Most of all, I love that I was so spectacularly wrong.
News: Karen B. London
Many dogs love the morning
It’s typical to suffer some sleep deprivation when living with a puppy, but it’s not only young dogs who encourage people to start the day earlier than we might like. A lot of dogs wake up early, ready to begin the day’s adventures at first light.
Puppies, and some of the older dogs, too, simply need to relieve themselves, but others are peppy and ready to go without any such bathroom urgency. Of course, many of these dogs have ample time in their schedules for daily naps, so there are well rested and refreshed when many people would still prefer some extra Zs.
With training, lots of dogs learn that they will not be going outside at dawn and must amuse themselves or simply wait until the humans have arisen on their own, or at least with the help of their alarm clock. A few pester people by jumping on the bed, licking faces, barking, whining, or otherwise failing to allow the people to sleep in.
I’ve only ever had one dog who was not naturally an early riser. When I woke up to go to work or out for a run, he was dragging. As I got ready to take him out, he would yawn, stretch, and look at me pathetically as he lumbered over to the door. It required encouragement to get him going on the days I was up early, but it was delightful on the days I slept in. It was such a pleasure to sleep late knowing that my dog was not waiting eagerly for the day to begin or crossing his paws in desperation as I snoozed. On weekend mornings, we both happily began the day in a leisurely way. He was rare in that way. I appreciated that trait then, and remember it fondly now.
How early does your dog wake up to greet you and greet the day, and what tactics are used to convince you to haul yourself out of bed prematurely?
News: Guest Posts
AFTER A LONG DAY of being a dog, no dog in existence has ever curled up on a comfy couch to settle in with a good book. Dogs just don’t roll like that. But that shouldn’t imply that human words don’t or can’t have meaning for dogs.
Chaser, a Border Collie from South Carolina, first entered the news in 2011 when a Behavioral Processes paper reported she had learned and retained the distinct names of over 1,000 objects. But that’s not all. When tested on the ability to associate a novel word with an unfamiliar item, she could do that, too. She also learned that different objects fell into different categories: certain things are general “toys,” while others are the more specific “Frisbees” and, of course, there are many, many exciting “balls.” She differentiates between object labels and action commands, interpreting “fetch sock” as two separate words, not as the single phrase “fetchsock.”
Fast forward two years. Chaser and her owner and trainer Dr. John Pilley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College, appeared again in a scientific journal. This time, the study highlighted Chaser’s attention to the syntactical relationships between words, for example, differentiating “to ball take Frisbee” from “to Frisbee take ball.”
I’ve been keeping an eye on Chaser, and I’ve been keeping an eye on Rico, Sofia, Bailey, Paddy and Betsy, all companion dogs whose way with human language has been reported in scientific journals. Most media reports tend to focus on outcomes: what these dogs can — or can’t — do with our words. But I think these reports are missing the point. Learning the names of over 1,000 words doesn’t just happen overnight. What does the behind-the-scenes learning and training look like? How did Chaser develop this intimate relationship with human language?
Recently, I had the pleasure of making Chaser and John Pilley’s acquaintance when they visited New York City for their forthcoming book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, out 10.29.13 (Facebook/Twitter). I sat down with Pilley to discuss Chaser’s initial training and learning and to pose questions offered up by readers of Dog Spies (Twitter /Facebook) and Do You Believe in Dog? (Twitter /Facebook). Pilley did most of the talking, and Chaser contributed too, periodically bringing me a Frisbee and sticks of various sizes to throw. As Pilley says, “Learning builds on learning,” so here’s what I learned from our conversation about the early building blocks of Chaser’s education:
Chaser is known for her extensive vocabulary. Can you walk us through how she came to learn the names of over 1,000 different objects?
Because learning depends upon learning, it helped to have her first learn certain simple behaviors, most of which were obedience behaviors like sit, stand, stay, and drop. She also learned herding commands like ‘way to me,’ ‘come by,‘ ‘there,’ ‘freeze,’ ‘walk,’ ‘go out,’ and ‘crawl’ among others. I used positive reinforcement, and in the beginning, I used food when she came to me. I gradually phased out the food.
When I started teaching the name of objects, I said, ‘Watch Pop Pop’ and would show her the object and say, ‘This is Frisbee,’ and I would hide the object just two feet away, so at that point, it wasn’t really hidden. When she went looking for it, I would keep saying, ‘Find Frisbee, find Frisbee,’ and when she mouthed it I would say, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ Then we made it more difficult, and I would really hide it out of her sight.
That was the procedure. A couple of times a day, I would play with her with that object for five minutes or so. No other objects would be on the floor, and we would play with that object, and I would profusely repeat the name of that object between 20-40 times in each session. ‘Find Santa Claus, Find Santa Claus,’ and then, ‘Good dog! Good dog!’ when she mouthed it. That was the first step in teaching her the names of proper nouns.
After the first object was taught, it was set aside, and we worked on another one. She always learned one object at a time, a successive method of teaching. Before Chaser, we had tried a simultaneous method of teaching with other dogs [presenting two objects at a time], and that didn’t work.
As Chaser learned the names of different objects, how did you test what Chaser was learning? Did you have a way to assess her initial and long-term memory?
After a few weeks, it was time to test Chaser. The criteria for learning was that she had to successfully select a particular object out of 8 other objects. My criteria was not just that one test. We replicated it at least 8 times, and the items surrounding the object of interest would be different from what she had seen in earlier presentations. She had to be successful in each of those independent sessions 8 times in a row. If she was successful on the first 6 but missed on the 7th, I stopped the testing and put the object aside and worked with it some more.Then I would start the testing some more.
In addition to testing her initial learning of objects, each month we tested her memory on all of the objects that she had learned up to that point. We did it in sets of 20. I put 20 objects on the floor, using only objects which she had shown initial learning, and we asked Chaser to retrieve each of the 20 objects. Over the course of 3 years of teaching, Chaser was successful in retrieving 90% of the objects correctly. Most of the time she retrieved 100% of the objects and other times 95%, but it never got below 90%. If she was not successful, I put that object aside for additional training. The reason we tested her each month was we wanted to make sure that she was not learning new objects to replace an old object. We wanted to be sure that there was complete retention in the long term.
How about grammar? What were the general training and testing procedures?
Chaser initially learned actions independent of specific objects. I might be holding a piece of food, and I would say, ‘Take.’ Over time, she learned the three commands, ‘take,’ ‘paw,’ and ‘nose’ and they were later applied to different objects. The first step in grammar is two elements like, ‘Take Lamb,’ and Chaser demonstrated that each word had an independent meaning. I like to say that learning builds on learning. Not until she learned the two elements should she learn three elements. When she heard the phrase, ‘Take ball to Frisbee,’ she was successful three fourths of the time. But she seemed to act on the last thing she heard, so we changed the expression to ‘To ball take Frisbee.’ We also tested the inverse, ‘To Frisbee take ball.’ This work tests her syntax, her understanding of the rule. When we invert it, we’re demonstrating semantics, that she actually understands each of those components of the sentence and the different meanings of the words.
Can you talk about the use of play in Chaser’s learning and training?
Tension, fear and anxiety inhibit creative learning, and play and tension are incompatible. During play, creative learning can take place. If you are going for complex learning, you are not going to get any learning with tension and anxiety; I’ve learned that in over 30 years of teaching. One of the things that runs throughout the entire book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, is that play is one of the secrets of Chaser’s learning.
Most people don’t explicitly teach their dog words, yet they think that the dog understands many words. Do you think this assumption could ever be problematic?
As long as this doesn’t result in some kind of negative response like criticism or punishing the dog, it could be innocuous. It could have a negative impact on the dog if someone thinks a dog should know a word or phrase and holds it against the dog if he doesn’t seem to be performing. The best and simplest assumption is that if a dog is not emitting a behavior, then the dog might not understand.
Does knowing words and syntax help Chaser have a “happier” life with humans?
I think when you have more understanding, there is better communication and thereby more happiness.
What do you hope people take away from Chaser’s story?
The big thing is that Chaser is not special, and that anybody’s dog is smarter than he or she thinks. I’m hoping people will work with their dogs, of course teaching them words, but also getting to know their dogs. Find out what makes your dog happy, and give your dog opportunities to explore its interests.
Hecht, J. 2012. Say What? Do Dogs Understand Our Words? The Bark Magazine
Goldman, J. Monday Pets: How Do Dogs Learn New Words? Scientific American. May 10, 2010
Pilley, J.W. with Hilary Hinzmann. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2013 Release
Pilley, J.W., and A.K. Reid. 2011. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents. Behavioural Processes 86: 184–195.
Pilley, J.W. 2013. Border collie comprehends sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object. Learning and Motivation. Published online May 13, 2013.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
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