Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wednesday Smile

Got my very first holiday card and couldn't resist posting it here.

(I've disabled the holiday card today. The card plays each time the webpage is loaded and does not offer an open to play only if a reader wishes. Being it's already January, it's a little off putting to hear holiday music each time the page loads.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday Smile

Someone passed along the book written by Irene Pepperberg called "Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process." While not the usual "Wednesday Smile" posting, this video put a smile on my face thinking about just how amazing the animals around us are. Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dog Whisperer Controversy

Against my better judgement, I've made a comment on a Boston Globe article about the Dog Whisperer controversy. There are two particular things that keep on grabbing my attention in the discourse. First is that the idea that a punishment is a superior mechanism of behavior change in comparison to positive reinforcement. I wrote about this in a previous blog post. The second relates to how the public discourse has moved from excoriating "academic elitists" toward a general disdain for knowledge derived from books and school rather than life experiences.

I realize this sounds like a big topic for a little puppy to blog about. Jason put me up to this.

In the Globe article Mr. Millan was quoted as saying "my school was animals, not books."  This is such an unnecessary polarization. Both academic knowledge (book learning) and real life experience are necessary. Either in isolation are useless.

A great body of academic literature relating to operant conditioning exists. Here is what it says:

Does punishment work? Yes, when presented without delay; when consistent; when limited in duration and intensity; when the consequence is logical; limited to the specific situation at hand; when no mixed messages are sent; and when negative punishment is used.

This last part is important. Pay attention here. A negative punishment is the removal of an attractive stimulus after a response. An example of this to try at home with a puppy? Puppy is playing tug, gets too excited, and nips your hand. A negative punishment would be removing the toy and stopping play with the puppy for a period of time. A positive punishment would be the application of an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus. Back to the same example, puppy gets rambunctious when playing tug and nips the hand. Owner swats dog on the nose. Shock collars are another example of positive punishments. Dog leaves the yard and an electric shock is administered by a collar attached to its neck.

What are the risks of punishment?  Here are a few: effectiveness of the punishment usually disappears when threat of punishment is removed; rewards can override the punishment; punishments can trigger escape or aggression; teaches that aggression is a legitimate way to influence others; can inhibit learning better alternative responses; is often applied in an unequal fashion.

B.F. Skinner, known as the father of operant conditioning, wrote that people "work harder and learn more quickly when rewarded for doing something right rather than when punished for doing something wrong." Where did he learn this from? Experience in the lab with animals and people.

What has your experience been--whether with animals or humans? Do punishments work? Are rewards more effective tools for shaping behaviors? What does real life experience show you? Feel free to post your experiences here.

Sit, stay, and other difficult feats of patience.

My examination for becoming a registered pet partner with the Delta Society is still six months away. While that seems like forever in puppy time, it really isn't all that long if you consider the things that I have to learn. I'm actually expected to sit and stay. Can you imagine that?

Jason thinks it's a really good idea if I learn to sit and stay in a crowd. That's the real challenge for me. Sure, when I'm at home I can resist the temptation of the television, kitties, or bird. It's a little harder out in the world when people want to pet me, they drop food on the ground, or do strange things like sing.

I'm sure many of you have seen dogs that struggle with this. Some of you have probably even seen owners struggle and become become completely out of control themselves. Their owners tug hard on their leash, yell (even though us dogs have no idea what you are talking about) hit us, or worse. This doesn't look like much fun--for human or dog. The humans look frustrated and angry and aren't enjoying being out in the world with their dogs.

Sure, some of this can temporarily suppresses behaviors like curiosity. Psychologists have shown us that punishments can do that. However when used, punishments must constantly be used to shape behaviors: if they are stopped, the behaviors stop too. Punishments do not teach me acceptable alternative behaviors.

What's sad about using punishments for a dog that gets up out of a sit/stay is what it ends up teaching.

"Sit puppy!" Puppy promptly sits.  "Good dog! Stay! Good dog!"

Puppy wags tail. Owner is happy, puppy is happy. Oh wait, what's that! A leave blowing in the wind! What fun. Puppy gets up and pounces on the leave. "Bad dog!" The owner runs to the puppy and spanks him. Puppy is confused. It was just happy and playful and got hurt.

If a dog is hit every time they are curious (they get up out of a sit/stay and walk toward something novel and interesting), the dog learns that new things are scary and painful. They loose their playfulness and curiosity.

So just how am I ever going to learn to sit and stay?

They day I came home, I started to learn to sit. It was easy. I was eight weeks old and everything was exciting. Every time I sat on my own, Jason made a big deal out of it. He pet me, talked in an excited voice, and sometimes gave me a piece of food. I also heard this clicking sound every time I sat.

Pretty soon I started sitting down all the time. I learned that when I did that, good things happened. Easy!   I came in from outside, I sat down. I wanted my leash to be taken off, I sat down. My dinner was being served, I sat down. I got to practice this a hundred times a day.

Things got a little more complicated. I would sit and hear the word stay. What they heck was that? Jason would say "Sit!" I did that and wagged my tail Then he said "Stay" and wait a second. Click, then treat. Sometimes it was click and a belly rub. I never knew what good thing I was going to get: I just knew it was going to be something good.

Over time my owner did all sorts of strange things. He would make me wait two seconds, then three, then four before I would hear the click and get something nice. Then he would turn his back and walk 5 feet away before he came back to me and gave me something nice. Just last week he started leaving the room and doing things like opening the front door or getting food from the kitchen. That's really hard for me and I can't always sit still. However when I do, I always hear a click and something nice happens to me.

This, by the way, is called chaining. Chaining is a behavioral term that involves reinforcing individual responses that are part of a more complex behavior. In order to learn to sit and stay, I have to learn several different things. I learn that when I sit, something good happens. After I master that I learn that I hear the word "sit" when I am sitting and something good happens. Then I learn that when I hear the word sit, I sit, and something good happens. After I get all that, I learn that I hear the word sit, I sit down, and I wait a second and something good happens. Chain it all together and I lean how to sit and stay. Give it to me all at once and I'll never learn it.

Yesterday was super hard! Here I am sitting in the middle of Harvard Square. People were walking. Some had food, others smelled good. A few people had dogs on a leash. A great number of people looked at me and made cute sounds at me. Jason expected me sit and stay? Ha!

I was able to stay for short periods of time. I can do it for longer at home, but there are less distractions there. I'm a quick learner though. Every time I looked at something and stayed sitting Jason clicked and did something that felt nice. At one point I managed to let ten people and one dog walk past me and I didn't stand up! That was pretty good. I got up when a kid started walking toward me. I'm a big fan of children and I knew he was going to pet me. Can you blame me for getting up? Jason turned me around and made me sit and stay. I only got to get pet my the kid after I did that. Again, I listened to the command and something nice happened. Easy, eh? No yelling or hitting involved.

Not satisfied Jason had one more test for me. He brought me down into the Harvard Square T stop. This was a big challenge. People coming from every direction! There was a constant stream of people coming from two different escalators. I've never seen such a thing!

Up on street level Jason started by rewarding me on a continuous ratio schedule of reinforcement. Every time there was a distraction and I did not get up, he clicked and gave me some sort of reward (a piece of food, a pet, a "good girl!", etc.). This is the easiest way to get a new behavior started. Catch me every time I'm sitting and not responding to a distraction and I'm going to get the hint quickly: it's a good idea to stay sitting when distractions happen because something good is about to happen. This of course is impossible to keep up, so after a period of time Jason switched to a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement. He rewarded me every second, then third, then fourth distraction that I didn't respond too.

Down in the T station it was way too stimulating for even a continuous ratio schedule of reinforcement to work. There were too many distractions downstairs for Jason to mark (he would just have to click nonstop!). He tried something different and got down on the ground with me and told me to focus. When he says this I look at him. When I do, something good happens.

For five whole minutes I sat down. I looked at something, Jason said "focus!" and I looked at him. Something good happened. I looked away at something exciting. "Focus!" I looked back at Jason, something good happened.

I'll be ready for my test next June. Try this at home with your dog. You'll be surprised at how well it works. Better yet, you won't even have to yell.

You might even want to learn how to try this at home on yourself or with your children. Some coaching is usually required, so seek out someone who is knowledgeable and can show you how to make this work.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Friend Jerry

I've been rather demanding for the last couple of weeks. When I leave the office I've really wanted to walk down Massachusetts Avenue toward the parking garage. Jason would much rather walk down Mt. Auburn because it's less busy and distracting. I however have other plans. I like the distraction and I've been busy making new friends. So what if it takes an extra half hour to get home?

Two weeks ago I demonstrated I have a mind of my own even when I'm on a leash. There was someone sitting on the sidewalk against a building. I thought the guy looked interesting so I started wagging my tail. I couldn't control myself for long and ended up in a play bow and then a full body wiggle. I dragged Jason by his leash over to the man.

I first met Jerry two Tuesdays ago. Over the last two weeks I've learned a lot about the man. His name was Jerry (I'm not using his real name: while he didn't ask me not to, I want to protect his privacy). He's a homeless Veteran from the first Gulf War. He owned a home and was married. Things got difficult, he lost his job, his house, and then his wife.

It's was around nine and the sidewalk on Mass. Ave. was pretty quiet. It was the in between time: early evening rush was gone and the after dinner crowd had not yet appeared. Jerry was sitting down on the ground with a cardboard sign that said homeless Gulf War Vet. He was sitting with a female friend.

Like I started saying before (I'm a puppy, I get distracted a lot!), I saw them and started wagging my tail. When I caught their eye I went down into a play bow. Both of the people got all animated: I knew what that means. Play time! I went into a full body wiggle and dragged Jason over there by his leash.

I got right up onto their laps and lavished them with love. Lots of kisses, tail wagging, and general merriment. My new friends talked about how many people walk by them trying to pretend like they don't notice them or turn their lips up in a sneer. With big smiles on their faces they both hugged me and showered me with a whole lot of love.

"Five minutes with you," they said, "is the best Christmas present we could ever get."

Last night I was playing with Jerry and some students from Harvard came up with backpacks. I was instantly excited because I smelled food. Apparently there are a few groups of Harvard students who walk around Cambridge every night offering sandwiches, warm socks and hats, and conversation. The students asked Jerry if he has been on the streets for a lot of days. He commented "It's almost 2010, right? I've been here since 2006." That's a lot of days.

I do have to apologize for my behavior: they students had birthday cake in their bag. I had a great deal of time controlling myself and wanted to enjoy the cake. After some pressure, I finally relented and listened to the "leave it" command from Jason.

By the way, kudos to the students volunteering their time at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

I've also made friends with another gentleman. He's a little more quiet: he didn't really talk at all. I met him along the sidewalk in his wheelchair. I approached slowly. He started to pet me, so I put my paws up on his lap. He pet me more so I got into his lap and sat down. His weary face warmed up and came a live for a few short moments.  That's another story, however.

This is the gift of a therapy dog. As my teacher Maureen Ross says, I share with people, in my own way, that someday, something good will happen, as it did when I found Jason. Until then, I'll sit on your lap, give you some attention, a kiss, and accept you as you are.

Wednesday Smile

Friday, December 4, 2009

All Healed and Ready to Go

Thanks for all your words of support while I was out having my surgery and recovering. It's hard to believe my spay was just ten short days ago. Here I am, back in the office and jumping off the chair to get some love.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Positive Training Debates

The other week we were walking along the reservoir and came across one of my favorite dog friends. While I played with the lab-mix and a new fox terrier friend, the people got into a conversation about training.  In a discussion about different training schools the other dog owners expressed disdain for positive training techniques. The quote of that particular day was as follows: 

Dog Owner 1 "What is positive training?"
Dog Owner 2 "It's where you learn not to beat your dog. That positive stuff doesn't really work.

The irony is that every training program I have ever seen for dogs are all based on Operant Conditioning which involves both positive reinforcement, punishment, and a whole lot of other stuff. The differences are in packaging and the tools used to implement the training plan.

B.F. Skinner uses the term Operant Conditioning to describe the effects of the consequences of a particular behavior on the future occurrence of that behavior. The components of operant conditioning are (1) positive reinforcement, (2) negative reinforcement, (3) punishment, and (4) extinction.

Huh? You almost need a doctorate in psychology to understand all this stuff. Good thing my owner has one.

So let's look at the individual terms.

Reinforcement is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency. Punishment is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with less frequency. Extinction is the lack of any consequence following a behavior. When a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced with positive or negative reinforcements, it leads to a decline in the response.

To fully understand this, there is another level of detail I need to tell you about. Reinforcements can be positive or negative. It's not what you think though.

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. 

A positive reinforcement is the giving of a pleasant even contingent on a behavior with the goal of increasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future. This happens because of the addition of a stimulus immediately following a response.

e.g., Giving me a piece of food when I sit down is an example of positive reinforcement as it increases the likelihood of me sitting the next time I am asked to do so.

A negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive (unpleasant) event contingent on a behavior with the goal of increasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

e.g., Letting me out of my crate (removing a stimulus) the instant I stop crying reinforces me not crying in my crate.

Reinforcements can be primary or secondary. 

A primary positive reinforcer is something that an animal doesn't have to learn to like. I personally am a fan of these little training bits my owner uses. I'm also a huge fan of playing with tug toys. They are very rewarding to me on their own and thus excellent primary reinforcements.

A secondary positive reinforcer is something an animal has to learn to like. The clicker, for example, is a secondary reinforcement. I originally had no idea what the click was all about. However, after my owner spent five minutes doing the following "click, treat, click, treat" I got the picture. I learned that the sound of the click was something pleasurable. I don't always get food with the click now. I get a the food reward on an intermittent basis.

Punishments can also be positive or negative.

A positive punishment is the giving of an aversive event contingent on a behavior with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future. In other words, a positive punishment is something that is applied to reduce a behavior. Please note that this is about the behavior, not the animal. In operant conditioning punishment is NEVER about the animal. It is ALWAYS about the behavior.

e.g., A dog receives an electric shock from their collar after barking more than three times. The positive punishment is the electric shock because the addition of this stimulus reduces the likelihood of barking more than three times in the future. 

A negative punishment is the removal of a pleasant event contingent on a behavior with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

e.g., A puppy is playing tug with his owner and bites the owners hand. The owner takes the toy away and stops play (removes play when bit) and thus decreases the likelihood of the biting behavior in the future.

Now pay attention, this part is important.

Positive reinforcement is the key to producing desired behaviors. B.F. Skinner (the "father" of operant conditioning) wrote that people "work harder and learn more quickly when rewarded for doing something right rather than when punished for doing something wrong."

Punishment doesn't provide the direction that a reward does. In other words, punishment can let a dog know that behavior is not desirable but it does not teach the dog an alternative behavior. A punishment has to continuously and consistently be applied to control behavior. A behavior that is rewarded on an intermittent basis tends to be the behavior that is most enduring and lasting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Therapy Dogs in the News

Several people have forwarded me a clip about Baxter the therapy dog. It got me thinking that part of what I'd like to do here is collect stories about therapy dogs in the news. Personal stories have the power to make the abstract personal, the distant close, and the strange familiar. Most people don't encounter a therapy dog in their day-to-day life. I think they should. Keep your eyes (not your paws!) on my blog. I'll be posting stories here as they come to  me. If you'd like, send me an e-mail and suggest some stories of your own!

Here is a clip about Baxter. He was a 19 year old therapy dog who worked in a hospice. This clip reminds me just how uncomplicated and unconditional the love a dog offers up to those around her. We therapy dogs never ask someone to explain themselves, we don't ask you to repeat yourself, and we never ever make you feel small and insignificant. Rather, we listen quietly (or in my case, with lots of kisses) and help you learn to be bigger than you thought you could ever be.

Baxter's story is kind of sad, so if you're not it a good place you might want to hold off and watch it later.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


So now that I'm comfortably recovering from my spay I thought I would write a bit about the importance of socialization. I won't be doing much of it for the next couple of days while I rest. However, I sure have done a lot over the last five months!

In a puppy's life, eight to 15 weeks old are very important. During this time I start developing associations with things--positive or negative. If given the opportunity to have a confident and safe introduction to a variety of stimuli, a puppy develops health associations with the world and are outgoing, confident, and calm. Not given the opportunity and well, things are more difficult.

Basically, every day I was carefully introduced to new people, situations, surfaces, sounds, animals, toys, and novel situations in which I eat.

  • children under 5
  • children from 5-10
  • children from 10-15
  • children from 15-20
  • tall people
  • short people
  • large people
  • small people
  • people with different skin tones and complexions
  • people with long skirts
  • people with glasses
  • people with hats
  • elderly people
  • people with disabilities
  • hats
  • umbrellas
  • running
  • biking
  • shouting
  • singing
  • wheelchairs
  • walkers
  • canes
Are you tired yet? I'm not! I got to encounter all sorts of new situations:
  • restraints
  • grabbing
  • having my tail held
  • having my ears held and inspected
  • getting hugged (I don't complain!)
  • holding my paws and touching my nails
  • having my head pat
  • getting my collar grabbed
  • nail trims
  • brushing (I still try to eat the brush)
  • being turned on side
  • getting rolled over
  • getting my teach inspected
  • getting picked up
  • getting massaged (dogs complain about this??)
  • dark places
  • wind
  • rain
  • snow (still waiting for this!)
  • bath tubs
  • elevators (scared me, but I'm over it!)
  • car rides
  • riding in shopping cars
Let's not forget about all the fun things I get to walk over. I also am getting introduced to different surfaces:
  • grass
  • concrete
  • bark
  • leaves (I love them!)
  • metal 
  • grates (the metal grates in Cambridge scare me!)
  • wood
  • uneven
  • hard plastic
  • plastic sheets
  • loud
  • soft
  • sand
  • wet 
  • slippery
  • warm/cold
  • shallow water
  • deep water
  • inclines
  • slides
  • stairs
  • tile
  • mud
  • tippy board
Like most puppies, I get a little scared by unfamiliar sounds. Look at all the things I'm getting introduced to! Usually what happens is when I hear a new sound I get a small treat--this works so well that I now thing the vacuum cleaner is a treat dispenser!
  • constant loud sounds
  • loud variable
  • loud mechanical
  • hairdryers
  • coffee grinders (every  morning I hear it!)
  • vacuums
  • showers
  • traffic
  • honking (this happens a lot when I drive into work)
  • waterfalls
  • shopping carts
  • hammering
  • construction vehicles
  • screaming/laughing children
  • barking dogs
  • loud music
  • singing
  • beeping
  • babies
  • dropping pans
  • lawn mowers
I've gotten to travel to all sorts of new places:
  • obedience school
  • pet store
  • parking lots
  • downtown
  • country
  • woods/forest
  • beach/river/stream
  • garage sales
  • playgrounds
  • outdoor restaurants (really hard not to eat all the food!)
  • subway
I've met all sorts of other animals:
  • big dogs
  • small dogs
  • hairy dogs
  • white dogs
  • dark dogs
  • dogs with cropped tails
  • wrestling dogs
  • chasing dogs
  • cranky dogs
  • friendly dogs
  • serious dogs
  • friendly cats
  • unfriendly cats
  • birds
I even get socialized to all sorts of different toys including tennis balls, rubber balls, fleece tugs, squeekie toys, stuffed toys, treat cubes, bones, rope toys, cardboard boxes, 2 liter bottles, leashes, and a whole bunch of wacky cat toys.

My favorite part of socialization is learning how to eat from different things such as:
  • metal and plastic bowls
  • kongs
  • treat cubes and balls
  • paper palates 
  • plates
  • glass
  • eating off the grass and concrete
Wow! That's a whole lot of work. Even though I'm older than 15 weeks I'm still being introduced to new things and as often as possible, being reintroduced to things I've already known. It's exhausting work (especially the eating part) but it is building me up toward being a good therapy dog!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Going to the Vet

It's hard to believe I'm already old enough to be heading to the vet to be spayed.

While I'm recuperating I will be writing about the importance of socialization in young puppies. Hopefully I'll be up and running after the kitties sooner rather than later. If I'm off my paws for long enough I'll also write about the importance of positive reinforcement training.

In the meantime, check out these important links about spaying and neutering:

Why you Should Spay or Neuter Your Pet

Where to Have your Pet Spayed or Neutered

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Welcome to my blog. I'm Magnolia Wigglesworth and this blog is where I chronicle my adventures as a therapy dog-in-training and beyond. I hope this ends up a great place: one which makes people smile, teaches about what therapy dogs can do, and maybe inspires a few people to partner up with their pups and improve the lives of others through animal-assisted therapy.

I was born on June 16, 2009 somewhere in Kentucky. I was one of nine pups in my litter. I'm sure we were a handful! Sadly, when we were one day old my mother's owner decided he didn't want any of us. The nine of us, alone with our mother Sweet n' Low, were dropped off at a shelter. My mom was diagnosed with heart worm and the vet said her back teeth were ground down, indicated she was probably left tied outside for long stretches of time alone.

Since my mom was sick we were all likely going to be put down at the shelter. Never fear--help was on the way. Rescue Rider Transport and Peace and Paws changed our lives forever. Both are non-profit organizations in New Hampshire. They rescue homeless and abandoned animals such as  myself. My whole family was brought to New Hampshire for foster care.

It was a great change of scenery. I got out of the truck and ended up in this great big house in Bedford New Hampshire. There was lots of outdoor space for my siblings and I to play. Even better, the family had children who adored us. I had time to grown strong, was well cared for, and my mom even got nursed back to health!

Here I am at six weeks old. This is when I first met the people who were going to take me to my new home. With a face like this, how couldn't it be love at first sight? Little did I know that I also had the temperament that my people were looking for. I was quiet, but not the least bit shy. I was curious about the world around me and wanted to explore. While I was a little hesitant about new situations, if given a moment or two to sniff, I moved forward to new things and explored them with gusto.  I had the makings for a good therapy dog-in-training.

So my new people visited me a few times over the next couple of weeks. With little legs like these, you could imagine how cute I was stumbling around. I loved attention. Whenever I noticed people looking at me I would lick my lips, look up at the people, and start wagging my tail as hard as I could. Since I was so tiny my whole body would wiggle. In fact, I wiggled so much I would usually fall down in a big cute wiggling mess. That's how I got my full name Mrs. Magnolia Wigglesworth.

I like to go by Maggie. It's more personal, you know.

The day I turned eight weeks old I was big enough to go to my new home. Little did I know I was already going to work! I had a busy schedule of socialization. I'll write more about that later.