By Dr. Sophia Yin
An Odd Request That Appeared Out of the Blue
One interesting aspect of scientific research is that you never know when a simple question suddenly will catapult you into a wild race for answers, followed by a lifetime’s worth of ideas and possibilities. That’s what makes scientific research so interesting. For example, in July 2003, my research took such a turn when, out the blue, I received a message from The Sharper Image, a San Francisco-based gadget company. “We want to develop an electronic mood translation device,” they said. “One that really works.”
Because my research was on barking as vocal communication in dogs, I knew what they meant. They wanted a bark translator. But I also knew that the cost of research and development for such a product would take many years and much more money to develop than any company would want to invest and would most likely fail to yield the type of results a consumer would want. And anyway, you’re better off learning to translate your dog’s barks yourself. So, when I received their message, basically I replied, “No, that’s silly and it won’t work.” But, unable to resist the idea of working with a company that could probably make any animal training device I conjured up, I went on, “But, how about these ideas instead?”
Their product idea had to do with barking, since excessive barking is a huge problem for dog owners. The products available to deal with excessive barking all focused on punishment and, thus, came with a number of pitfalls or unwanted behavioral side effects. So, I suggested, “How about making a device that addresses the barking issue by rewarding quiet behavior and that’s backed up by research to prove that it works?” I thought to myself, “Such a product would sure make my behavior house calls work a lot easier…”
Well, 18 months later the product was out. The Treat & Train® Dog Training System (formerly called the MannersMinder®) for decreasing barking, jumping, door dashing, and other unruly behaviors that dogs exhibit when guests come to the door. The techno-gadget part of the system is a remote-controlled kibble-dispensing machine that emits a tone and immediately releases a treat when your dog performs the correct behavior. The key is the timing—now owners can time the reward right as their dog performs the correct behavior without having to fumble for the food or run up to Dozer to deliver the treat. As a result, the dog finally understands exactly what he is doing right as he does it.
What a cool gadget! The first time I used it, I finally understood why men like remote controls so much. The part of the Treat&Train® that really makes it work, though, is the carefully developed protocol for training dogs to run to a rug and lie down quietly on cue even in the face of major distractions, such as repeated doorbell ringing, knocking, loud shouting, people running around, front door wide open, guests walking around, or people trying to eat a peaceful dinner.
A Product Proven by Research
Having never worked with a large corporation before, we immediately started off with a huge mistake in communication. When The Sharper Image asked me to develop a product, they stated they wanted something backed by research. As a scientist, I took that to mean doing a scientific research study, publishable in a major animal behavior journal, to see if the product and training program actually did work and, if so, how well. It turns out that The Sharper Image would have been happy with me just giving them a protocol based on my experiences and telling them it worked! But to me, a training program that was not backed by scientific research would not be credible. Fortunately, I approached the project in this way because, during the research, I came upon many surprise findings that have continued to guide how I train today.
The Pilot Study
I designed and carried out the the research in three stages. I started with pilot testing using 10 dogs to look at various techniques I had used already. However, this turned out to be more complicated than I initially thought. Training dogs myself is fairly straightforward, but my goal here was to design a program that the average dog-owner team (with no previous training experience) could perform successfully with as few errors as possible. Also, the owners had to be able to learn the program without having a trainer to coach them!
I quickly solicited suggestions from Bob Bailey, former general manager of the Animal Behavior Enterprises (the largest animal training company based on scientific methods that has ever existed), Karen Pryor, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog, and Eduardo Fernandez, who is now an affiliate assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Washington. Over a grueling several weeks, I finally came up with a protocol—one that took me about six days, instead of the one to two I had first predicted to complete, per dog. Now I had to test how well it really worked.
The First Experiment: Examining the Protocol
In January 2004, my assistants and I carried out the first research experiment at The Canine Connection Dog Training facility, owned by Dr. Sarah Richardson, in Chico, California. We took six unruly dogs and worked them through each step of the protocol. Each time we performed a repetition or trial, we recorded correct and incorrect responses. Then we followed strict criteria. A score of nine out of ten correct trials in a row allowed us to move on to the next step. Miss more than two out of ten and repeat the step. Miss five or more out of ten and go back a step. Despite having dogs of different breeds and temperaments, all the dogs made it through the protocol in eight days. The steps were easy enough that dogs performed each trial correctly over 90% of the time. That means they made mistakes less than 10% of the time. Now we had a protocol that we knew dog owners easily could carry out.
One interesting side note we observed: some dogs were nervous in the training environment without their owners and one dog had a history of low attention span. So, two of the dogs had to go through a couple of short Learn to Earn Program sessions where they learned to say please by sitting for petting or to go out the facility door. I had automatically required these behaviors in my house during the pilot study because I routinely require dogs to behave well in my home. Yet, I hadn’t realized how important these steps might be for dogs overall and how it might affect them in the study. Once the two dogs learned to sit for petting and to go out the door (for instance, to be taken out on walks) they were much calmer and more focused. You’ll see the importance of this in a minute.
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The Second Experiment: Clinical Trial
The next step was the clinical trial to see how the protocol worked in real homes. We called for the most poorly behaved door-greeting dogs we could find and made owners prove their dogs were unruly enough. Owners had to videotape their dogs for one minute during three guest visits so we could quantify the bad behaviors. We got what we asked for. Fifteen dogs that barked on average of 19.3 times, jumped 8.2 times and spent over 75% of their time crowding the door or crowding the guest. The worst in each category barked over 40 times, jumped over 20 times, gnawed on visitors’ arms, and one even had a history of lunging so hard to get out the door that he once dislocated his owner’s shoulder.
Some owners were skeptical about whether the program would work for their unruly dog, but all wanted their dogs to be better behaved. So, armed with an instruction manual, a rough instructional video, and a prototype kibble-dispensing machine, the owners diligently worked through the program just as a regular dog-owner might. That is, instead of practicing every day as they were directed, they skipped many days in a row, took long vacations, accidentally skipped steps, and performed steps incorrectly. All this meant we had to check on them regularly to ensure they were staying on track. In spite of the setbacks, all dogs metamorphosed into polite door greeters within two to 16 weeks with the average owner spending 20-30 minutes a day and taking about a month of consecutive training days to complete the study. By the end, dogs, on average, barked less than one time per minute, and since they all stayed on their rugs virtually the entire time, none jumped on or crowded visitors.
One part of the training program that we added, in addition to the main protocol developed in the lab, was for owners to put their dogs on the Learn to Earn Program to help improve their dog’s focus on them and their dog’s impulse control if the owners got stuck on the last stage of training—practice with visitors coming to the door. In particular, we thought dogs might need to learn that if they wanted to get somewhere and their owner blocked them, they wouldn’t be able to get by, so they might as well sit politely and ask their owner for permission to pass. For instance, if, instead of remaining in a down-stay when visitors arrived at the door, the dog chose to get up to run towards the person, the owner could block the dog and the dog would remember that blocking means he has no chance to get by. Then the dog would make the choice to go back and wait at the rug instead, where he also could earn food rewards. In other words, the dog had learned that if he got up, his access to rewards (getting to the door or person would be the reward) would be blocked. The only way he could get rewards was if he lay on his rug. It’s a good thing we included this to the protocol because all but one dog needed to add this final step.
Why was this important? Well it turns out that most of the dogs did need to do a portion of the Learn to Earn Program. These dogs did really well but got stuck on the last stage of training—visitors actually at the door. Why was this different from the laboratory study? In the laboratory study, we could control the level of distractions we presented to the dog. So, positive reinforcement alone worked well to train the dog to stay lying on the rug. In the home situation, the level of distraction that the visitors presented varied in an unpredictable way by the type of person, the time of day, and what else had gone on during the day. Sometimes the level of distraction was higher than the owner had practiced. As a result the dog, which had already learned that lying on the rug with distractions meant rewards, also had to learn that getting up equals no rewards, no ability to get to the door or the visitor.
This study really seared in the fact that in an unpredictable world, you can’t just reward the behavior you want. You have to make sure the dog does not get rewarded for the unwanted behaviors, too. Positive reinforcement alone isn’t enough. Negative punishment, or removal of rewards for unwanted behaviors, is needed, too. This finding illustrates the importance of performing research, especially field or clinical trials rather than just going on based on lab studies or on your impressions of what works.
The Instructional DVD and Manual
At this point we had a training program that we knew worked even when owners did the training with their own dogs. Unfortunately, developing an effective training program is only half the work. Creating instructional materials that would compel owners to perform the steps correctly would be the key to success. This sounds simple until you realize that animal training is a technical skill, a sport, just like tennis or golf. If your timing is off or you do something a little bit different, you don’t get the results you want. And just watching someone demonstrate the correct technique isn’t enough. Good instructors break the techniques into their component parts in order to reveal the important nuances. They also show the consequences of performing the technique incorrectly or skipping steps.
With this in mind, I designed an instructional DVD using dogs in different stages of the learning process so that viewers could see how dogs look while they’re learning the exercises as well as how they look once they know the exercises. The DVD illustrates most steps using several dogs; it also illustrates each step several times and highlights the finer points with close-ups and slow motion. Additionally, while the DVD features me demonstrating techniques correctly, it also features owners demonstrating the mistakes they have made and special “nerd alerts” that humorously illustrate additional errors to avoid. We also show how to deal with most of the pitfalls owners might come across.
As you might guess, the DVD is quite extensive. It includes over 30 dogs and it includes information on how your dog learns as well as ancillary exercises that will help you get a dog through the program quickly. In addition, we even tested the DVD via a focus group viewing in which I asked viewers to perform the techniques they just had observed so that I could evaluate their interpretation. The DVD contains 13 chapters and two bonus chapters and is 3.5 hours long. It’s meant to be watched in 10-minute segments right before the owner works on the next step.
The Product Now
Now, Amazon.com sells the Manners Minder® as the Treat&Train®. While it comes with a protocol for training dogs to behave politely when guests come to the door, I originally intended for this to be just an example of the use of this device and the steps used to train this final complex behavior. I’d hoped that people would understand that these same steps could be used to help dogs in many situations—to be calm in a crate, to help treat separation anxiety, for a training agility pause table, and go outs. I also intended for the device to be used to train dogs to work at a distance and independently. To my pleasure, many people use it to train their dogs in just these ways. I’ve seen trainers use it to teach dogs to work independently for scenting, precise military work, agility, and more. Veterinarians and certified applied animal behaviorists use it for dogs with separation anxiety, inter-dog issues and over-arousal in the car. Personally, I use it on a daily basis for a variety of routine as well as fun behaviors—training tricks, rewarding calm down when the gardener arrives, training agility contacts, and other experiments in training.
Lucky for me and for my dog that I answered that fateful email many years ago. It’s lead to a ton of fun for him and other people’s pets. It’s also had a major impact on my approach to training dogs and people.
Watch these videos for more information about the Treat&Train® and to see the product in action: