I Go Bearing Gifts

 

Leaving for doggy boot camp tomorrow.  Nervous and excited. Looking over my gifts.  I hope he/she likes them/me! Ah, arranged marriages…

 

Last time I went to The Seeing Eye (which was the first time I trained with a guide dog), I did not bring gifts.  This time I am bringing:

#1 Nylabone (oh how Millennium loved to gnaw on those!)

#2 plush toy with many squeaker features

#3 Frisbee

#4 material for sewing doggy blankey

#5 box of peanut butter cookies – hope they’re tasty, they are for training purposes (see below)

#6 3 clickers, several books worth of training tips and theory, a sincere desire to work hard, and some big plans

 

I’ve been reading a lot about training in these weeks leading up to doggy boot camp, something I wish I’d done last time.  In particular I’ve been learning about positive reinforcement training, or clicker training.  Its roots are based in the experiments of the often (and I think wrongly) vilified B.F. Skinner.  The most fun and amazing books that I’ve read so far are by Karen Pryor, who started using positive reinforcement training with the marine mammals at Sea Life Park in the 60’s.  It breaks my heart to think that there was another way of dealing with Millennium.  How many times did I correct him using the traditional methods of negative reinforcement, namely a “leash correction,” which is a quick hard tug on the choke chain.  This is what they taught me and I did not know any better, though admittedly it felt wrong.  They drilled it in that you must be the alpha dog and that of course dogs are quite rough with each other and that they have a much higher tolerance for pain, and how else to control a relatively large strong animal who cannot understand English, etc.  But of course you can’t put a choke chain around the neck of a dolphin or killer whale to get them to jump through hoops and so Pryor and others had to develop another way.  The things you can do using the clicker seem limited only by imagination and the physical abilities of the particular animal. 

Clicker trainers assert that they are opening a means of communication with their animals by establishing a fixed connection between the sound of the clicker (or whistle or whatever), the correct behavior and the reward to follow.  Once the animal understands that it is this or that precise behavior that is being rewarded and that other “wrong” guesses are not punished, the animals themselves become creative partners, or so the clicker gospel goes.  As of right now, I’m a naïve and hopeful believer.

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