Guinea pigs, games, and ground rules

By Debby Kay, ©October 2015 all rights reserved

This has been an exciting month for me, with loads of things happening—like writing this blog from the whelping box while my sweet girl Hope is delivering her puppies. This is a special litter as it will be the last litter born to my long-since-gone English import CH Majestic Saxon, a.k.a. Ben. Ben was from the Labrador era of the ’90s and his bloodlines are the last of a very famous line of dual working dogs. It’s exciting to know that these lines will be preserved and that the old-fashioned Labrador will continue. This is something I have always been very passionate about, but after my travels and discussions with some top researchers this month I wanted to share some initial thoughts.

I feel everyone, no matter how long you have been doing something, needs to continue to educate yourself on the latest research in your field. With that thought in mind, I was able to meet, train, and discuss scent training with some of the top researchers.

My travels took me first to Tennessee, where my Labrador Rosie and I trained for 2 days with Ed Presnall, a well-known author, tracking judge, and trainer.   Rosie relished all the time spent figuring out the many scent puzzles that Ed and his partner Debbie presented to us. We learned a ton of excellent suggestions for improving our teamwork and how to compete successfully in AKC tracking events.

The one pertinent thing I want to share with you—even if you don’t train tracking but do some other kind of scent work—is what Ed pointed out several times to us during training. You need to be :

  1. Observant of what the dog is trying to tell you and
  2. You need to keep practicing.

This seems obvious, but so many times we think “we see” a behavior when in reality we are “seeing” what we hope for and not what the dog is really doing. This idea is difficult to write about but becomes very clear when you get into Ed’s workshop and it was a very valuable lesson. I’m hoping to add a few more exercises to my own scent workshops that will help people to read their dogs better, as I feel this is one of the big problems I see early on in the scent training, especially for the medical alert dogs.

As for practice, it is a very human thing to think that just because we have the idea our dogs should too. I have seen people fall into this false belief and the outcome is disappointment in the dog’s performance nearly every time. Obviously you can practice too much which can also lead to some negative results. I saw this at the workshop too where a very eager participant got up extra early to try several more tracks before class and her dog was just plain tired and did not perform too well. Knowing when to quit is key to achieving the results you are looking for, which should be leaving the dog with a positive impression and success on the last exercise performed.

The next trip for me was to Dallas, Texas, where I was able to attend Guinea Pig Scent Detection Camp with the well-known author and professor of ethology, Dr, Roger Abrantes. Camp was quite an experience indeed as our mission was to first train a young raw Guinea pig to run through an agility course,

photo of miniature obstacles

A Guinea pig sized agility course complete with weave poles

then to step cue on a block and finally to differentiate explosive from non-explosive odor giving the step cue on the correct container. The idea here was to learn the importance of correctly identifying and marking behaviors, while honing timing and other skills. With the little piggies, you do not make mistakes, because if you do, they shut down completely. They will literally freeze and then it is all over.

Dr. Abrantes was an excellent instructor and with the help of the Guinea pigs doing their thing he was able to show us many useful skills that can apply to dog training. One thing I noted as I watched others working their piggies was the lack of consistency directly led to the lack of success they experienced in getting the pig to perform. In several cases I saw pigs freeze when the mixed signals became too much for them to handle. Almost all of these trainers had many years experience in training too, which made me realize one thing we can all do is check ourselves for consistency. This means in everything from how we present the reward, where we present the reward, and timing of it down to the words and other things we say to our animals during training. Since I have worked with many other species besides dogs, I am a person of few words during training sessions, which really paid off when working with my Guinea pig. I had to work hard to be consistent but observed that once you are aware of this, things gets easier as you continue to train.IMG_0440

Having a plan at the beginning of your work really helps you to stay consistent too. Dr. Abrantes stressed that each session should have focused goals. I’m pleased to say my little pig performed all her tasks very well, even though she was tired by the end of camp.

Some of the other trainers I met with at the conference also stressed that having ground rules, sticking to those, and keeping with your game plan are key to success. I could not agree more and it was good for me to hear this as the student instead of my usual role as teacher.

In one lecture by Dr. Erica Feuerbacher I got some great insights on structure versus function and how to sort out the parts of a scenario that will help to identify the source of the problem behavior that people usually call me about; for example why does the dog only jump on the husband and not the wife. As Dr. Feuerbacher pointed out, with all our dog training we are helping the dog to generalize the things we are teaching so they are applied in all situations. By dissecting the issue into parts, which she called discriminative stimulus (this is stimuli that are contributing to the problem and predict reinforcement for a certain behavior) and stimulus delta (this is stimulus that predicts the absence of reinforcement for a certain behavior and when present the rate of the behavior decreases) she showed how as trainers we can more effectively isolate the things that need to be worked on. It was a lot to take in but I found the whole conference very stimulating and informative. I have already started to incorporate some of what I have learned into my future lessons.

The October workshop, held here at my facility in Harpers Ferry, was a good place to watch these principles and lessons in my practical world. I realize now that I have not been stressing enough about the variable reward schedule and when to start it. Variable reward means that the food treat we use to mark the correct behavior we are trying to train, is not given 100% of the time the behavior is performed. A sample session implementing the variable reward might go something like a reward given after every other behavior, then maybe four in a row, then maybe every third time the behavior is offered and so forth.

service dog learning to be still with kids

Learning to deal with kids

Praise with your “bridge” word would be given all the time at first even though the food is not always coming, but then eventually the praise would be gradually backed off. The idea here is that once the task is learned using the variable reward will help reinforce the behavior stronger than 100% reward and as it becomes less and less food the dog is finally working on task because he understands his job, not just for the food. Certainly we do not want any dog—but a service dog in particular—to be working for food. Different experts had different opinions (no surprise) as to when to start to introduce the variable reward. I have previously said it should be after the scent memory is built, for those familiar with my program. After a lot of discussion with other trainers, I am reconsidering that perhaps it can be introduced earlier, such as the second week of working with the dog without any setbacks. I’ll be looking at this more closely with future trainees and see how the results compare. In the meantime, if any of you have already experimented with this, I’d love to hear your comments and reporting of your results.

As I finish up this posting, we have several nice black males, chocolate females and one chocolate male on the ground now and I am beside myself at the miracle of these pups coming from long-frozen semen.   I’m sure these will be some of the most videoed pups ever, so watch for postings on my YouTube page as they develop and start their training in the weeks and months to come.

Mothers and Messages

Happy Mothers Day to all the ladies who read this blog.

This Mothers Days was very special for me as my favorite Labrador, Cookie, had a picture perfect delivery of ten healthy puppies. She was kind enough to finish up about an hour before I was to catch a plane, so while I was upset at leaving her at least I did not have to worry about her delivery while I was gone. I left on time for my seminar with Natural Pets Dog Training in Lafayette Indiana. This seminar, hosted by Natural Pets Nutrition and Dog Training, was packed full of information with a series of speakers in addition to my presentation on Medical alert dogs. One of the bonuses of the weekend was a private tour of person in front of sign for Wolf ParkWolf Park about 15 minutes north of Lafayette.   This sanctuary for wolves was started by the late Purdue University researcher Dr. Erich Klinghammer, and continues today as a primary study and educational outreach center on wolves.
I was fortunate to be able to talk to Patricia Goodman, one of the senior investigators who have been at Wolf Park for over 40 years. Pat is a wealth of knowledge on the ethology of wolves and I found her discussion on this topic as well as canid behavior very enlightening. For those not familiar with the science of ethology it is considered the objective study of animal behavior under as natural conditions as possible. There is also I learned a component looking at how this helps the species in evolutionary adaptation. The main thing is ethologists do not try to interpret what the behaviors mean, they simply observe and record. These observations are collected into Ethograms and it from these records that later analysis is done.

This is different from what you find most dog trainers doing, which is behaviorism. Behaviorism looks at the same thing but the focus is on trained behaviors and in more of a controlled setting. There is no attention on evolutionary adaptation in this case.

There is great value to everyone who deals with animals of any kind in knowing what their behaviors mean. It is only through the observations of these behaviors that we learn about our animal friends. What I personally found of particular value was a story shared about an incident with a visitor and two of the wolves.

A young visiting high school student was allowed to go into the pen to visit the wolves with 2 senior staff present. The pack consisted of the alpha male and alpha female, 2 other young female wolves and three littermates who were about nine months old. These wolves had been hand raised by humans except for the two young females who avoided humans. A male came up to her and started to play. The young girl was playing back and it appeared that all was friendly as all signs of the wolf’s behavior was that of what we dog people would call a “play” bow. During this interaction one of the non-hand raised female wolves started to circle behind the young visitor when one of the senior staff noticed this and called out to the girl to watch out behind her. At that very opportune moment when she turned her attention away, the male wolf leaped up and attacked the girl, biting her in the knee. The girl turned around and faced the male who backed off and the staff was able to get her out of there. Her injury was not serious.

Does this sudden change from play to attack sound familiar to some of you dog trainers that are dealing with agadult bisongressive dogs? You think that the dogs are playing but are they really? In this case, the conclusion was that the male wolf was not playing at all, but rather was testing the young visitor and waiting for his opportunity to attack. In fact as our group toured around we discovered a herd of bison on the farm, where investigators have allowed the wolves to approach the healthy bison in order to observe hunting behaviors. Wolves do not attack healthy strong bison, this has been well documented in their wild state; they go rather for the weaker of the animals in a herd. What the ethologists have observed is the same type bowing behavior in front of the bison, as was witnessed with the young visitor in the story above. It is felt this is really indicative of a ready stance, not a “play” bow, and is more of a test of whomever the wolf is facing, to see if they are strong or weak and whether there is an opportunity to attack.

What is interesting to me is the sudden change in the wolf’s behavior from play to aggression. I have seen this in dogs but unfortunately did not have video rolling at the time as the wolf park people did (they always have a video going when people are in with the wolves) but I suspect there were probably subtle cues from the dogs as well. As I have been talking to quite a few trainers these past weeks I am hearing more about aggression issues with our dogs. This makes me wonder about the underlying causes. Could it be the same as the wolves; are the dogs testing whomever they are “play” bowing to and were not really “playing” at all?

Some people have suggested that breeders are not being as careful with the temperament considerations when breeding and there is a decline in stability of temperament due to that. This is certainly a real possibility but cannot explain all of the issues.

Others have suggested that increased stressors in our modern environment are taking their toll on the temperaments of the dogs especially the family pet. Dogs are increasingly left alone for long periods of time, have less physical exercise and outlets for their natural activities and are under more pressure to be on their best behavior all the time with less time to just be able to act like a dog. This too is a real possibility that could contribute to increased aggressive behaviors.

What the wolf project has shown, is not until behavior is properly analyzed can any interpretation be offered. Far too often dog owners and even trainers are too quick to jump to conclusions about the cause of a particular behavior of a dog, especially when it deals with aggression at any level.

So perhaps we can take a clue here and make sure we understand what signals are dogs are giving us, learn how to give cut off signals, and give clear messages ourselves to our dogs so there is no misunderstanding of our intent.