Words Matter: The Impact of Language Choice, Lindsay Wood
This session was geared towards people who work in animal shelters, but applies to everyone who owns dogs. I think it’s critical for owners, trainers, and breeders to be selective about word choice when describing individual dogs or their breed. When we label our dogs we change how people (even us) think about them and respond to them. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy or perpetuate outdated thoughts/treatments. If we describe the observable behaviors rather than a generic label we allow people to “see” the dog for what it is and take a proactive role. For example, if we say a dog is undersocialized that sounds pretty final. Instead we can say “their history/behavior demonstrates socialization deficits” and describe their behavior and the context it occurs in. The why can be included but it isn’t really important. From there the trainer can identify triggers and develop a behavior modification plan.
Fear Factors: Understanding and Reducing Fear Across Species, Jen Digate
It’s not that unique that self-regulation is desired, but I was intrigued by the idea that the learner cab choose a previously learned behavior to self-soothe. The other, and complimentary option, is a signal for “keep going”. This is becoming more common as we give the animals the option to say no. Another takeaway was to use a verbal cue so the learner knows what you’re about to do and can choose to leave. This dovetails nicely with Sarah Owings method of ritualizing training so the dog knows what to expect and can say “meh, not right now.”
Another big thing was that incompatible behaviors can’t be cued if the learner is already full of fear. One of the most popular training protocols is to train a behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. The problem with this is when you’re trying to change a fearful conditioned emotional response. If the learned is fearful they’re worried about survival; they’re not going to prioritize the cued behavior.
Inside Out: How Understanding Emotions Makes for Complete Training, Sarah Owings
There were so many good things in this session! This was something I’d been thinking about but couldn’t really formulate into anything coherent. Basically, training the emotional state that accompanies the behavior is as critical (or more critical) than the behavior itself. The goal is to plan your training around both the respondent goal (emotion) and the operant goal (behavior) so that the end result is an operant behavior that has an appropriate (and positive) conditioned emotional response.
How to do this? Some of her thoughts were: embed reinforcers into the environment, calibrate yourself to your learner, begin training the emotional state in a conducive environment (if your dog barks like crazy in the car don’t try to train calm behavior in the car; start in your house), behave/mark/reward in ways that encourage the emotional state you want, and start with clean loops. There’s a lot more to it, but then I’d be repeating everything she said!
When Good Training Goes Badly: Troubleshooting Your Training Sessions, Lori Chamberland
The session had tons of info on what can go wrong and how to fix it. For me the biggest reminder was rate of reinforcement (RoR). I’ve become much more aware of my RoR and it’s the first thing I check if training isn’t progressing. If my RoR is too low it likely means I’ve lumped behaviors. By splitting them into smaller pieces, or going back a step, I can crank up the RoR and regain my dog’s interest.
Into the Wild: Mustang Taming Clicker Style, Jen Digate
I’ll be honest, I went to this session just to fill a time slot. As it turned out I’m lucky I did! While she spoke about mustangs, many of Jen’s insights and techniques are applicable to fearful or reactive dogs.
To begin with, I loved her definition of “over threshold”: the demands of the situation have exceeded their education or available emotional resilience, and their survival mechanism has been engaged. This typically leads to loss of proprioception, gross motor behaviors, reduced sensitivity to pain, and inhibited learning.
Something else I loved, and heard in her previous session, was to teach a barometer behavior. This is a behavior that the animal knows well, so if they’re unable to perform it this is an indication that they’re over threshold. Take a step back literally and/or figuratively until they’re ready to continue. One of her horses will self-soothe by lowering his head, then when he’s ready to move on he’ll very intentionally turn his head towards her. I’ve been mulling over how to teach the dogs to do this.