Friday, December 11, 2009

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.

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