What If I Can’t Go to an Animal Behavior Conference?

I am cross-posting this to both of my blogs because all species are supported in these learning situations!

This weekend is Clicker Expo. That means the social media of clicker trainers is full of pictures and posts: meeting the giants of the industry, listening to inspiring talks, and watching training in action. It can be hard to watch from afar if you wish you were there. As consolation, I have compiled a list of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of from home.

Katie Bartlett and Rosie

First of all, many of us who do go to various conferences often write about them afterward. I’ve written in this blog about previous Clicker Expos, ASAT conference (Art and Science of Animal Training, formerly known as ORCA), NEI (Natural Encounters Inc), and Alexandra Kurland clinics at Cavalia’s home farm. But the master of taking notes and sharing information is Katie Bartlett. I do not know how she both gleans so much from the talks and then manages to put it all into understandable blog posts. If you can’t get to a conference, follow her Equine Clicker Training blog. She also blogs about her own training experiences and every word is worth your time to read.

Several conferences also video some or all of the talks and make them available afterward. Clicker Expo offers many of the talks this way. Word of mouth has it that ASAT will also be offering videos in the future. The Karen Pryor Clicker Training Store also sells videos from many well known trainers that you can watch from home.

This winter I have participated in several learning opportunities from home. Last year I splurged on both Expo and NEI so this is the year to pay the piper and not spend money on hotels and flights. It does not mean I had to forego continuing my education.

Last fall I enrolled in the Fear Free Pets program. Their program has been so successful that they are updating their site. When I went there just now, the site is “under construction” but the email I received from them states they’ll be back up next week. The course “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’ and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments.” It is aimed at veterinary clinic employees as well as trainers who would like to help their clients with fearful pets. I found the information very helpful and wrote about it in “Fear Free Kitty” on my own blog.

Karen Pryor Academy offers ten different courses in training, dog sports, shelter training and also veterinary visits.  Access to these courses is for 12 weeks to a year, allowing you time to learn at your own pace and giving you the flexibility to fit it in around other responsibilities. I took the Smart Reinforcement course with Ken Ramirez last winter and have been thrilled with the use I have been able to get out of what I learned.

IAABC offers a rotating list of courses that vary from genetics and DNA; to shelter dog behavior; to writing. Some include the option of mentorships with leaders in their fields. I have just completed Eileen Anderson’s Writing course which I audited, although the option to submit writing to her for comment was also available. I haven’t taken a writing course in 30 years and it was quite a thrill to be focusing on my own writing again. With luck, readers of this blog will benefit from my renewed attention.

The Pet Professional Guild offers monthly webinars. Last week I attended one titled “Scent and the Assistance Dog” which was fabulous. I’ll confess I haven’t been equally impressed with some of the other presenters but the webinars are reasonably priced, especially if you are a member.

For anyone who teaches other people (this includes all of us who help people train their animals), TAGteach is invaluable. I received an email recently that they have a new (free!) course that offers an introduction (or a refresher) to TAGteach principles.

Percy and I with Alex

I have to include Alexandra Kurland’s online course in this list. Alex is the one responsible for the clicker in my hand and the treats in my pocket. Reading an article she wrote in 1999 started me on this journey and she has kept me going in the right direction. Her course is a comprehensive presentation of her training principles.

Finally, I have just begun “Horse Biz Boot Camp” with Cadence Coaching. This is my first experience with this type of coaching, but I was invited to join by Marla Foreman who had a two-for-one offer. Since my goal this year was to find ways to increase my income (to be able to afford more conferences next year!), certainly some help in the business side of things will be beneficial.

The ones I have listed here are all opportunities I have taken advantage of myself. There are many others. These and others range in price from free to hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you have any you would like to recommend, to me or to other readers, please give a link in the comments below.

It always seems like winter is a good opportunity for spending time on education and yet I never fit it all in. So many good books to read, webinars to watch, courses to take. And here it is March and the days are already lengthening to the point where it’s light after dinner.  But it’s snowing again…

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Using Novelty in Reinforcers

Last week on my Bookends Farm blog, I wrote about one of my horses sneaking into the barn and finding enjoyment exploring the area. He found this somewhat novel experience preferable to being outdoors with his friends eating hay. That was an example of him creating his own novelty in enrichment. I promised a blog post on novelty in training with dogs so here it is.
 
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ruts are for roads, not training

While we tend to think that our animals need routine, routines can become ruts. Ruts aren’t fun. Animals understand patterns and when they predict something enjoyable, they can become disappointed and frustrated if it doesn’t happen. On the other hand, if we surprise them with something new, it helps to build some resilience for those times when unexpected or unavoidable situations disrupt the routine. We can help our dogs learn that different can be a good thing.

 
The routine in our house is that mealtime for dogs is when we come in from barn chores, both morning and evening. Eloise, my Jack Russell Terrier, runs up the stairs in anticipation as soon as we come in. When I get upstairs, she is sitting on the little rug where she waits for meals. If I am in a hurry to do something when I get in and don’t immediately feed her, she continues to sit there. She learned that sitting on that rug is what causes meals to appear, and my occasional lateness taught her that she needs to keep sitting there. That behavior has become resilient to the passage of time. How have I made that a good thing? Oftentimes what delays her breakfast is that I am sharing mine with her. If I feed her immediately, it’s because I have prepped her dog food quickly. If I am making scrambled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, I will make extra so she can have some for her breakfast. More often than not, a late breakfast equals a special breakfast!fullsizeoutput_194
 
One of the first handouts I give to dog clients is about treats. I explain that treats should be small and soft but that each dog will have preferences in taste. I ask people to try different foods to see what their dog likes best and then vary those treats according to the difficulty of the training. I suggest commercial treats and “people food” such as cheeses, meats and peanut butter. People find something the dog likes, but then they stick with it. The dog gets accustomed to that treat, and it stops being quite so reinforcing. The dog doesn’t focus as well. When I visit, I bring something new, such as ham, or chicken and the dog can’t wait to work for me! The people see how well it works and then use that as a reinforcer…and stick with it. They neglect to take advantage of novelty. I tend to have something different each week so that the dogs never know what to expect from me. It’s not the specific food I have in my treat pouch, it’s the knowledge that there will be something new and exciting.

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Bandit is happy to see me arrive
 
The reaction from the dogs shows that it’s not what I have; it’s the anticipation of what it will be this week. They don’t ignore me until they see what I have. They know I’m good for something novel and so they focus on me as soon as I step in the door. That’s what makes positive reinforcement and novelty both so powerful and so different from luring, even though both involve food and both can use novelty. Positive reinforcement includes the element of surprise.
 
In addition to varying foods as reinforcers, we can also vary activities. I like to surprise Eloise after a recall. Sometimes she gets a treat. Sometimes I pick up a stick and toss it for her. Other times I pat my chest which is her cue to leap into my arms. Then she gets her wiry hair scritched before being put back down to run off again. In the fall, our road is littered with wild apples and they make wonderful things to throw and fetch. They bounce and taste good too. My old Jack Russell, Beetle loved snowballs tossed for him to leap up into the air and catch. Nature provides novelty if we take advantage of the opportunities.
 
When training a new behavior, novelty may cause problems by interrupting the flow of training. While the dog is still trying to figure out what earns the click, a high rate of reinforcement (the number of click/treats per minute) gets many repetitions of the correct response. Offering the dog something novel could slow things down. The dog might sniff first, then savor the morsel and finally look around on the floor to see if any was dropped.
 
I prefer to use novelty to maintain behaviors that might otherwise lose their fluency over time. The problems that distractions cause can be counterbalanced by novelty. It becomes “can I catch that squirrel?” against “what goodie might she have”? I want to be sure that my reinforcer is worthy of the decision my dog makes!