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.