Thursday, January 26, 2012

Training with a Clicker vs Clicker Training

I'm confused about this, because I thought that the click was supposed to become a conditioned reinforcer and that you always "mark" when the dog did what you wanted, but fade the treats down to occasional and random (as well as giving other rewards like praise and scritches) so that the dog doesn't only perform when they're hungry. I thought unpredictable reinforcers were actually better at getting a behavior than predictable ones, once the dog has actually learned the behavior.
(The trainers I've worked with used verbal markers rather than clicks. I don't know if that makes a difference in terms of when you need to treat.)
KellyK, Lehrhund: Dog Training Law
That is a very common misinterpretation. It does work, at least for a while, but you usually end up having to recharge the clicker pretty often. I consider it an inefficient use of the tool.

Instead of fading rewards, think about raising criteria.

Example: If your dog can do a five minute down stay, you aren't going to click 30 second stays (unless you're fixing something). When a student is in an algebra class, they don't spend time doing basic subtraction except in the context of a harder problem (like every 5 minute stay includes a 30 second stay). If your student CAN'T do a 30 second stay or a basic subtraction problem, they have no business doing advanced work when they don't have the foundation to be successful.

Clickers are really most useful in behavior acquisition. See shaping, where the goal is crystal clear communication. By the time I've put a name on a finished behavior, I usually do not need to be so precise about what I'm reinforcing, so I switch to a verbal mark. At that point, it's a matter of context, timing, and ability to reinforce that determines if it is worthwhile to mark.

Example: You are in training and working on down on recall. Let's say your dog knows this exercise, and does it with confidence. In other words, it's just practice, you aren't fixing anything. When he downs, you might offer a word of praise ("Gooooooood dog") before finishing the recall. It's not appropriate to mark in that situation, because you don't want to end the exercise, but it is appropriate to let the dog know he performed the criteria.

When he fronts and finishes, you can mark and reward, or can release, or you can move into the next exercise. It depends on how the dog was trained and what he needs. Both of my dogs have a tendency to bypass front and auto-finish, so I rarely finish them in practice and often mark and reward the front.

Another note about rewards: I prefer to have a wide range of reinforcers that I can use very often than one reinforcer used sparingly. Developing life rewards and self control (sit to go out the door, heel past the squirrel to chase the squirrel, give up the treat to get the treat) are the key to clicker trained behaviors being useful in real life.

You are right that unpredictable rewards create stronger behavior than predictable ones (compare buying a soda from a vending machine vs playing slots at a casino) but many people get so hyper focused on getting off food rewards that they miss the bigger picture of using rewards in training. Clicker training uses a LOT of food, particularly early in training, and I think people see that and think they're going to have to keep up that rate of reinforcement for the life of the dog. You won't, I promise, even though it looks that way from the start.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Adam's Task I: "Pellucid Prose"

I started reading Adam's Task on my Kindle. When you first open a book on the Kindle, it doesn't take you to the cover or table of contents, the first page you see is the first page of writing. So it wasn't until I finished the prologue that I learned it was written by Border Collie trainer and trialer Donald McCaig.

I thought he was a woman.

Take that as you will, but McCaig's prologue sets the tone for the book: sentimentally flowery where passive syntax masquerades as arcane truth.

"Let me backtrack to 1986. I was and am a sheepdog trainer. I believe that training any dog to anything like his full capacity is an intricate, heartfelt, deeply intellectual undertaking which deepens the trainer's soul as surely as it satisfies the dog's. The conversation between trainer and dog is so subtle, dense, and satisfying that I have known great trainers whose ordinary human speech has atrophied. These brilliant linguists cannot explain what they do, and often cannot answer novice's questions because asking that particular question means the questioner can't understand a true answer."
Vicki Hearne. Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name (p. ix). Kindle Edition.

Emphasis mine. I am a deeply theoretical person (hence, the blog's title, which translates literally to teachdog, and poetically to theoryhound) and cannot do anything without understanding how it works, why it works, what to do if it doesn't work, and when to know that it did work. As my understanding of dogs and dog training grows, I am beginning to understand the bold more fully. I can explain myself all day long, but if the listener is not ready for the knowledge, they will not hear it.

My objection is when this is used as an excuse not to even try explaining. This idea will eventually be expanded on in the main text, reasonable reasoning used as an excuse for objectionable action. If you cannot understand a true answer, you do not get an answer.

A blog I read frequently posts short quotes from a variety of sources on dogs, training, learning, and any other topic that touches on some truth related to these (as everything is dog training, this encompasses quite a lot). While I usually agree with the quotes, they clearly mean more to the author than they do to me. Sometimes understanding is beyond our current knowledge, but without being exposed to them our understanding can never grow.

"Dog fanciers (dog show people) whose arcane lingo obscures and excludes these sparks found Vicki's pellucid prose "difficult" and her democratic spirit profoundly unsettling."
Vicki Hearne. Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name (p. x). Kindle Edition.

If you are using the word pellucid, you are not. I suspect McCaig was too allured by alliteration. As we will see, Hearne is anything but "pellucid" and even less democratic.

As I write this, I'm training two Border Collies for sheepdog trials and starting a three-year-old who has been a difficult family pet because her heart is too great for petdom.
Vicki Hearne. Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name (p. xi). Kindle Edition.

This is the first slight against pet owners. This is not a book with a "democratic spirit," this is a book that ridicules and puts down anyone less enlightened than the author.