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Two Training Tips

August 18, 2011 1 comment

(Note – if you are new to positive reinforcement training, I recommend reading the article on “clicker training parrots” before this one:)

Clicker Training Parrots

Also, while this post starts by focussing on my dogs, the information is relevant to parrot keepers!

Meet Micro, my Maltese:

Micro

I adopted Micro at the Edmonton Humane Society last year. I had recently lost two of my older dogs to cancer (Compy the greyhound and Shayla the American Eskimo) and was left with Pharaoh, who is a golden retriever mix. I didn’t want Pharaoh to be an only dog, so I started to keep my eye out for a small dog that was gentle and calm around birds. I saw Micro’s picture on the humane society website and bolted right down there with my husband, my dog, and my Jenday Conure, Peggy.

Shayla, Pharaoh and Compy

Micro was still available when I got there. Yeah! Maltese tend to be adopted immediately when they show up at shelters around here. I had brought Peggy with me because I wanted to see how Micro would react to a bird. The employee who was helping us out with the adoption had never seen anyone bring in a parrot before, but I really wanted a dog who would be okay with parrots.  I first held Peggy up to Micro when he was behind a window and Micro didn’t react at all. I then walked into Micro’s kennel holding Peggy and again, he did not react to her.  Micro also got along fine with Pharaoh so we applied to adopt him and were approved.

Micro and Pharaoh

Micro is a charming, smart and sweet little dog. I started doing some clicker training with him and he learned fast. He’s also quite athletic for a Maltese and I frequently take him for long walks. Even after a 10 km hike, he still has energy left.

Micro did have one little problem though: he’d get extremely excited if he saw another dog on a walk and he’d start barking like mad. Now, this is not a particularly unusual problem, especially for a toy breed. Micro is not actually aggressive and does not react to other dogs if he’s off leash. Additionally, if on leash, should Micro get to meet a dog he’s barking at, he’ll usually just sniff noses with it and then go on his way.

What to do? I picked up the book, “The Feisty Fido” by Patricia McConnell to get some pointers on dealing with a dog that gets yappy and excited at the site of another dog. The book was helpful and I decided to teach Micro to “watch me” on cue. That way, I could get his attention when another dog came around. Micro already knew “sit” and “down,” so if he saw another dog, I could pull him off the path, get his attention with the “watch me” cue and get him to sit.

I also took the advice in the book to start training Micro in a simple environment with few distractions. Then, I would  gradually add distractions. I first started teaching Micro to “watch me” along with “sit,” “stay,” and “come” in my living room. Then I worked up to teaching Micro with Pharaoh present in the living room. Next came training sessions in the yard with or without Pharaoh, then on a quiet street, and finally, at a park with another dog in the distance.

Everything was going great. Micro would watch me, come, sit and go down in most situations. However, he’d still have a melt down if another dog came close to him.

Now what? I was using some high-quality commercial treats as reinforcers to train my dogs and they worked just fine in most situations. However, if another dog was close (say, within 10 m), Micro just didn’t seem motivated enough to watch me. The other dog was much more interesting!

We did more practise sessions in less distracting situations. I also decided to see if I could find a reinforcer that was more rewarding for Micro. I tried cooked liver. I don’t like dealing with the stuff, but Micro and Pharaoh? They love it. I fried some up and cut it into small pieces and ran the two dogs through some training exercises in the yard. I actually got faster responses using the liver, so I tried some exercises at the park. Again, I got very fast responses from some very focussed dogs. The dogs’ responses to cues were also fast when there were other dogs in the distance.

The big test came and I was pretty confident the dogs would respond to me with another dog nearby. One evening, with another dog passing us on a trail,  I pulled my two dogs aside, asked them to “watch me” and asked them to sit.

It worked! They looked at me, ignored the other dog and sat down. Of course, I rewarded them with a snack of liver bits.

This little story illustrates two principles of good training that apply to many species, so if you are training an animal to give a specific response to a cue, keep the following in mind:

1. When training a new behaviour, start training in an area with no or few distractions, and then gradually increase the number of distractions present.

For example, when teaching a bird to step-up, start in an area the bird is comfortable in and that has few distractions present. Once the bird responds well, try training sessions in a new area that is just a bit different from where the bird first learned to step up. Gradually add distractions and soon, you will have a bird that will step up reliably no matter where he is. Many people will train an animal to respond to a cue in one setting and expect the animal to then respond to the cue in very distracting or stressful situations, such as at a vet’s office. This is a common mistake, because animals who have learned to respond to a cue in one location do not always respond to it in a completely new location. This is why dogs who have learned how to sit during an obedience class may not do so at a busy pet store. Vary your training locations and be patient to ensure that the animal responds to a cue in a variety of situations.

2. If an animal just doesn’t seem motivated or focussed, or if you have hit a training roadblock, try another reinforcer or try to increase the value of your reinforcer.

For example, the commercial treats worked okay with Micro, but the liver worked even better. Real meat tends to be a very powerful reinforcer for dogs and as a bonus, it’s a very healthful treat. Items that often work for training parrots include nuts, dried papaya, sunflower seeds, bits of grape or millet.

There are also things one can do to increase the value of a reinforcer for an animal. If using food, don’t have your the training sessions right after the animal has had breakfast or dinner. A food reinforcer just won’t be as reinforcing for the animal at that time.

Additionally, the specific food that is being used as the reinforcer can also be removed from the animal’s diet except for training sessions. If the animal has access to the food used as a training reward at all times, he may not be as motivated to work to get that food. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, as some birds or dogs may be motivated to work for pellets or kibbles, but frequently, a very tasty but infrequently recieved food will work very well as a reinforcer.

On a final note, some may wonder why I didn’t jerk Micro’s leash, scold him or otherwise punish him for the barking. Many prominent trainers go straight to such techniques in dealing with leash reactive dogs. I do not for several reasons.

First, using leash jerks on a small dog like a Maltese is outright nasty since such dogs are prone to collapsed tracheas.  Secondly, some dogs (especially big dogs with tough necks) actually become desensitized to the leash jerks (or other punishments). Finally, the punishment may make the dog more edgy or nervous on leash, which is not what is wanted. The fallouts of punishment (especially poorly timed ones) can include aggression and stress. Teaching the animal what do to (focus on the owner) can work just as well (actually, even better) than punishing the animal. Finally, the ethical trainer will always use the least punitive approach that gives results.

Happy training!

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