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.