Friday, June 14, 2013

Closer to the Heart

Dr. Dunbar wins the attention of a very cute, very distracted puppy.

This weekend, K9 Connection in Warwick, RI hosted a two day workshop with Dr. Ian Dunbar. Over the years Dr. Dunbar has been an important influence on me. What got my attention first was the example he set. Trainers and behaviorists  can debate who they relate to most but there’s little debate over his relevance. If you do what I do for a living you know who Ian Dunbar is and yet despite having few peers, he is approachable, intellectually curious and disarmingly funny. He’s quick to turn the spotlight on the trainers and dogs in attendance. He’s slightly compulsive, not allowing the one brown chair amongst the other identical black chairs in a game of dog training/musical chairs. Dog slobber was a problem, yup, one of the very best vet/behaviorists in the world doesn’t do dog drool. Go figure. Above all though, Ian Dunbar is an extraordinary and energetic teacher who wears his love for what he does like a superhero's cape. This weekend I watched a master at work. Two days of one incredibly clever idea after another went by in a relative flash. So much information had been communicated, it felt like a great movie I’d watch over and over again, collecting new bits of nuanced goodness with each viewing. A day after it was over it started to register with me that there was a wonderful subtext that had unfolded right in front of me. Everyone there had gotten more than we'd expected. At 5:30PM on Sunday, as the workshop drew to an inspired close, there was one final message that summed the experience we’d all had in a very sweet way. I won’t spoil it by elaborating on it because it’s something you deserve to experience for yourself. If you have an opportunity to see Dr. Dunbar lecture or workshop do it, don’t think twice about it. Do it if you’re an accountant, systems analyst, roofer or mechanic and you’ve never had a dog before. I say this because the subtext of the workshop transcends the otherwise obvious attraction for people who work with dogs. It was about being kind to one another as well as to our dogs. It was about the importance of doing the right thing. It was science vs. nonsense. Amidst all the wonderfully clever games and insightful techniques, I found myself rooting as an observer for the dog owners in the ring. Clapping and cheering for people and dogs I’d never met until this past weekend. It wasn’t just me, everyone was in on it and it happened with the seemingly effortless guidance of the brilliant and self described shameless teacher. If playing the fool drove home the point that everything he was sharing with us were things we could do ourselves, he was not above it. “Yes, by all means photograph, video tape, post it on YouTube, I’d like to think I’ll still be around after I’m gone.” Think about that for a minute. 

It's satisfying to learn that someone you admire a great deal would approve of how you do things. I appreciate the value of clicker training but am not a clicker trainer. I prefer to use by voice for audible cues, a personal decision I've doubted from time to time. However I was also compelled to reevaluate a number of ideas I've both relied on and thrust upon my clients with a great deal of earnest over the years. They include:

Don't Repeat Yourself: Unless you want your dog to think the instruction for "sit" is "sit, sit, sit"
only say it once. "Absolutely ridiculous!" was Dr. Dunbar's response to that question asked by a fellow attendee.  I could have looked at this as simply a difference of opinion but as a hypothesis, Keir and I tested it with Miles Saturday night. It works. To this I say to every dog owner I've beat that drum relentlessly with, I apologize.

The Verbal Cue Follows the Instruction: Lure for sit then respond with "Good Sit". Wrong again! The connection is not clear as I had thought. As a form of praise it's fine but the connection between the word and the lure (hand signal) is cloudy or non-existent. Again, Keir and I worked on this with Miles giving only hand signals first followed by only verbal commands, measuring response ratios. They were all over the place and changed as the venue changed. Lots of practice and proofing to be done there.

Always Use Food Rewards: This applies to other forms of reward (toys) that may not be on your person when a response is required. My argument stemmed from the use of choke, pinch and electronic collars. Response ratios can be maintained (reliable) so long as they're around, therefore treat rewards should always be around. Much to my shame and humiliation, wrong again. While for dog owners who are hyper-vigilant about having treat bags within arm's reach, get reliable responses from their dogs, there are situations that will trump the most compelling treats you can imagine. Higher value treats for more challenging environments, done that lots of times and while I'm not ready to toss out everything I've read, seen and done related to counter conditioning for proximity with primary and secondary reinforcers,  I did witness a game of follow the leader with roughly 30 dog/handler pairs. No treats used and lots juicy, behavioral goodness on display. The prolific use of treats are under review.

In this exercise, participants are asked to lie down next to their dogs the way their dogs are lying down.

I've written before that training is a science and as such is evolving. Remember Bertrand Russell, "Science does not aim at establishing immutable truths and eternal dogmas..."  That’s an extremely important idea and segues nicely into my favorite hypothetical question, "Are you interested in the truth?" assuming the answer is "Yes." it follows, "Then you won't be upset if you're wrong." Still, I am a little upset. There are lessons that would have yielded more specific, more desirable long term results. I suppose that will always be the case. Engineers design bridges knowing all too well that more sophisticated, safer and longer lasting bridges will be possible in the future. So too will the science of training continue to advance thanks to people like Dr. Dunbar. 

Leaving K9 Connection this past Sunday evening, I wanted to thank Dr. Dunbar, tell him how much he'd inspired me but he's British and I'm shy when it comes to things like this so I'll say it here. I started the weekend feeling drained and down, I left reinvigorated and grateful for the experience. Thank you Ian Dunbar and thank you Jamie Dunbar for the invitation. Thanks also to Teri and Cassandra at K9 Connection for hosting the workshop. Great, great, great.