When I was a kid I had a doberman. She was a wonderful dog that came to our family at about a year and a half of age with long black dagger toenails. As far as I could tell, no one had cut this dog’s nails, ever. Since I was charged with much of the dog care in our household I had to figure out how to trim this dog’s toenails and well, that was a task. She was 80 pounds of solid muscle and at the ripe old age of 12 I wasn’t much bigger, and certainly not as strong. Right away, manhandling was out of the question. I did try, because that was how I got the other dogs’ nails done. Most of the time I wound up just restraining her while my dad cut her nails, but I also tried a bunch of other like smearing peanut butter on the fridge for her to lick while I did her nails (sorry, mom). The bottom line, looking back, is that my dobe was uncomfortable with this whole thing. I knew that at the time but my attempts to help her be more comfortable were failures. Now I have more tools in my toolbox, and they stretch far beyond the basic idea of “pair good stuff with bad stuff: make bad stuff good.”
We have to know what we are looking for in order to shape a behavior, and we have to know what we want to avoid, too. Saying “I will stop the procedure if the animal exhibits discomfort” is of little help to us if we can’t operationalize discomfort. We have to break down that word into observable behaviors, come up with behaviors we’d like to reinforce in their stead and go from there. Stating “I will discontinue the procedure if I see a lip-lick, a head turn, a yawn, sniffing, or mouthing at the handler,” is a much more effective way to state “I will stop if the animal is uncomfortable.”
Emotion as Criteria
When we are helping our dogs to feel safe and comfortable with something–be it the seesaw for agility or the dremel for grooming–it is important that we list emotion when we list out our criteria for the behaviors we are training. In order to do that we must operationalize said emotions. When going for the teeter performance I want I look for bright eyes focused ahead, full speed up and over the board, and a quick return after each reinforcement for the next repetition. In teaching my dog about having his toenails dremeled, I might look for similar criteria. Considering these pieces when we outline our performance criteria is important, and often overlooked. When I train I don’t just want precision, I want joy, and in able to obtain these I must know what they look like!
Observations vs Inference
A shout-out now to Dr. Susan Friedman and her online Living and Learning with Animals course; she inspired me in her lecture this week to mention much of these things, and in particular to point out the importance in valuing observation over inference when training. That’s what we are doing when we unpack words like “joy” or “fear;” we are being more effective trainers because we focus on what we are seeing, not what we think we know.
Now, for a little hands-on example, check out my introduction of the “comfy cone” (alternative to the big plastic elizabethan collars often used in veterinary hospitals) to Felix. He is fine and has no current need for the cone, which is why its the perfect time to introduce it. Notice that at each stage I check the observable criteria that tell me he is enjoying this process and not at all afraid: he returns quickly if I toss reinforcement away, he participates willingly by nudging the cone, and his facial expression is loose and relaxed.
So what are you waiting for? List some emotions as criteria for your next training project, and be sure you operationalize them!