A group of researchers recently set out to investigate the effects of play after training, and the results of their study (published 2017) may have huge implications for dog trainers and owners alike!
Prior to this study, it had already been well-established that excitement around the same time or right after an event can help solidify memories of that event for animals and people. You're much more likely to have strong memories of a day at school if that day's lesson involved an exciting game, or if that was a day where you had to stand up in front of the class to give a presentation. The brain emphasizes the importance of excitement, and attaches that importance to the events surrounding that excitement. In this way, the brain highlights those memories as significant.
The goal of this study was to find out if positive, playful activities post-training would enhance dogs' memories of the task they were being trained to do. The researchers only tested Labrador Retriever dogs in order to control for breed differences in performance. The dogs were trained to indicate one of two different objects presented to them. Researchers included a control group in their study to compare performance between dogs who played after training and dogs who spent that time resting on a dog bed.
The study found that just 30 minutes of playful activity following a training session significantly improved dogs' memory and training performance, even when tested a full day after the original training session! The "playtime" in this study consisted of 20 minutes of walking on leash, and 10 minutes of off-leash play.
Clicker training is a method of teaching an animal to perform a behavior using a "clicker," a small device that makes a “click” noise when you press a button. This method is widely used in dog training as well as for training animals in zoos or in animal research. In my own laboratory research, we even use clickers to teach our subjects (capuchin and rhesus monkeys) how to use computers to play games with joysticks! Clicker training dates back to the 1940's, when renowned behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner was studying animal learning and operant conditioning. His research is a foundation of the modern use of scientific principles in shaping animal behavior.
So how does clicker training work? To provide an example, I’ll describe a real-life situation I encountered recently:
The parking deck for my apartment complex is needlessly confusing and frustrating. The deck is accessible through a gate which requires you to wave a card near a spot on a sensor, which causes the gate arm to lift. The sensor is finicky though, and it's hard to figure out where exactly you should wave your card. This causes me to just sit there for a minute waving the card around different spots until I finally get the "sweet spot." The worst part of this whole setup is that there's a lag in between getting the right spot and the gate opening, so I can never be sure where/when I got it "right.” This situation could be avoided if the gate emitted a beep to let me know that it had read the card and was about to open. The beep would tell me precisely when I'd gotten the right spot and I'd know in the future where to wave the card in the first place! This analogy illustrates why the use of a clicker for training is so effective. Instead of letting a dog try a million different approximations of a behavior it was doing kind of close to the time you rewarded him, you can give him instant feedback when he's doing the exact behavior you want and reduce his guesswork in the future.
For a dog training example, imagine that you want to teach your dog to come to you when called. You call your dog, he comes over, sits at your feet, and looks up at you expecting his reward. If your dog is still learning what “come” means, he may not be sure whether he’s being rewarded for walking over to you, or for sitting, or for looking at you, or for stopping what he was doing before you called. If your dog is being clicker trained, however, you can use the clicker to tell him exactly when he performed the behavior you were looking for. Ideally, you’d “click” right when he got to you in the above scenario, without waiting for him to sit or look up at you first. After you’ve “clicked” your dog, you’d then reward him (with food, toys, praise, or anything else that he’s motivated by).
The “click” is used to mark the exact moment an animal has performed the desired behavior.
Marking a behavior simply means that you’re giving the animal a cue to distinguish which specific behavior they’re being rewarded for. After enough repetitions of pairing the “click” with a reward, your dog will quickly understand that the noise means he’s accomplished what you’re asking of him and that his reward is on the way.
While a verbal cue (like the word “yes” or “good”) could be used to mark a behavior the same way, the clicker has some unique advantages. The “click” noise is very distinct, which makes it a better choice if you want your dog to take notice of it and learn what the purpose of your marker is quickly. Clickers are also very consistent in how they sound. The ideal marker is one that sounds exactly the same each time you use it. Verbal cues are rarely so consistent.
I made a short compilation of one of my sessions with a favorite puppy pupil of mine, Milo! He's a ham and loves to show off. Milo's laser-sharp focus and drive to learn means that he picks up on training in a flash. Watch his video to see this cute corgi in action!
According to a recent study published in the journal Science, the answer is yes! Researchers were aiming to investigate how dogs process words and intonations in human speech. They found that dogs' brains process words themselves with the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere processes tone of voice. This is very interesting, considering that human brains process speech in the same way!
Even more fascinating is the finding that dogs use their ability to separately process words and tone of voice to better understand the meaning behind what we say to them. Dogs in the study only considered speech to be "praise" if both words and tone of voice were positive. If nonsense words were spoken in a pleasant voice, or if words they recognized were spoken in a monotone manner, dogs did not consider the speech to be "praise." The dogs only found the speech to be rewarding when both the tone of voice and the words spoken matched up.
This very cool, insightful study gives dog owners and trainers a good reason to pay attention to how we speak to our dogs; clearly, they're paying attention too!
As a dog trainer, I get questions every day about training techniques. My clients want to know when they should be rewarding, ignoring, or punishing behaviors. The answer, as it turns out, isn't simple! Each situation and every dog is different. So, how does a professional handle these different contexts?
I follow a Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) approach to dog training. This means that when I'm making a treatment plan for a client, I will always opt for starting out with treatments that are going to be least likely to be uncomfortable or disturbing for their dogs. The infographic pictured above shows the steps a trainer should use when treating a dog, starting with wellness and using punishment only once the other steps have already been taken.
Once a dog has been cleared by a vet and I am certain that he is not suffering from any physical or mental health problems, the next step is always to manage the dog's environment, before even attempting to change his behavior. After that, I will begin to work with the dog himself using techniques and tools that the dog will find super fun and stimulating. If the dog is experiencing issues with fear or aggression, they may not be able to have a "fun" session with me at first, and that's okay! For that dog, our first training goal will be to participate in training that the dog finds very nonthreatening and slow-paced so that he can build confidence.
Punishment (scientifically speaking, I am referring to "positive punishment" here) is simply when you add something to the dog's environment that makes him less likely to perform a behavior in the future. For instance, a person can punish a dog by adding a slippery surface to an area where he normally likes to zoom around. The word "punishment" should not be associated with barbaric methods, pain, suffering, or trauma. While punishment can be misused and often is by misinformed trainers, it is simply a tool and every behaviorist should know how to use it properly and judiciously. The LIMA approach that I take means that punishment is selected as a treatment only as a last resort, and is never my go-to option right off the bat. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior provides an incredible overview of why punishment should be used carefully and only if other options have already been exhausted. CLICK HERE for the AVSAB's great article on the topic!