Otter and Weasel: A Training Journey

I had the exciting opportunity late last year to apply the principles of positive reinforcement to two young budgies that joined our family in November. Otter and Weasel were selected from a local pet shop by myself based only on the fact that they were young, male, and appeared outgoing in the aviary. They were not hand raised, and they had not had their wings clipped.

otter and weasel budgiesOtter and Weasel were very quick to strike up a “bromance” and they fast became inseparable. Tradition tells us that training two budgies at once is difficult, but it actually worked to my advantage. Weasel is the more confident of the two, and as he progressed so too did Otter in an effort to stay near to his buddy.

I began by allowing the boys to eat spray millet from my fingers. I then started pairing the word “good” with the opportunity to have a bite of millet – “good” became a bridge to let them know they had earned a reward. From there it was only a matter of time as i shaped their behaviour closer and closer to stepping on my hands and interacting with me.

recall training birds

Otter and Weasel have been in our home for a few short months, but they happily step up and recall to my hand on cue. Their association with me and getting the good stuff is strong, and i have never given them reason to fear me by pushing them faster than they were comfortable going. It has been a joy to watch their confidence develop in the birdroom with their 8 other birdy friends. They have integrated into the flock perfectly.

I want to encourage people to explore the option of training their birds with positive-reinforcement. It is the most rewarding experience to see your parrot choose to be with you and interact with you, even though it has the choice to fly away and play with its buddies instead.


Positive doesn’t have to be permissive

On of the biggest worries people have with regards to training their pets with positive reinforcement is that they won’t be able to set house rules, and that by using force-free methods they will be letting their pets walk all over them.

pets outdoors training

This couldn’t be further from the truth, in fact i promise you that my own pets are infinitely easier to manage in the time since I put punishment-based methods back in the bottom of my training toolbox. In situations where i would once resort to “ah uh!” or “no!” I am now armed with the knowledge of how to help my pets to do something more appropriate, motivating them so that they do it again in future.

You can run a happy, pet-filled home without playing the feared law-enforcement officer.

The beauty of training with positive reinforcement is that it creates a training relationship where your pet wants to do what you ask. You have to do your part, by taking the time to teach your pet the skills to respond correctly, but the long term effects of this approach to training are worth that small effort. If you haven’t taken this time to actually teach your pet what to do then how could you possibly expect it to behave correctly?

indoor cat training

Get together with your family and figure out what your house rules are, and how they influence the ways in which your pet/s can behave. What do you need to teach them for them to succeed in your home? How can you do that in a way that promotes trust, fun, and bonding for everyone?

You don’t need to resort to harsh training methods to run a happy house. Get in touch with us to find out how you can set your pet up for success in your home and life!

The importance of choice

Imagine for a moment that your whole life was completely controlled by someone else. No matter what you said or how you asked, they decided when you could eat, where you could sleep, what you could do to entertain yourself, even when you had access to the bathroom.

Humans have a lot of choice about what they do on a given day. Sure we have a basic schedule of things that we have to do (like go to work) but we are able to act on our environment and the people and animals in it to maximise our enjoyment in our day, and to avoid things that make us uncomfortable (or to solve these problems to resolve such issues).

dog choosing to play choice control

Our pets often aren’t afforded this control in their lives. We decide everything for them. Some of our decisions result in lots of fun for our pets, like going to the beach, playing a game, or settling down for some one-on-one affection, but other decisions can create a lot of stress for them.

We have high expectations of how our pets should behave, and we often don’t take the time to communicate clearly and teach them how to meet those expectations. Imagine back to your day with no control, and imagine having someone constantly scolding you for doing what seems logical to you (sitting somewhere comfy, greeting someone when they approach, etc). Given a few tries at finding the right thing to do, if you were still being told NO, you would probably start to feel frustrated, angry, confused, and stressed. This is life, at least some of the time, for many household pets.

So how can we give our pets choice in their day, to reduce stress and allow them to interact meaningfully with their environment? We can train them with positive reinforcement, teaching them through clear and gentle methods what they are allowed to do. We can learn about their body language, and step into the role of their advocate when we see that they are worried by something. We can condition them gradually to enjoy experiencing more things. And we can show them ways to let us know what they want and need. We can empower our pets.

Choice and control over our life is important to our mental well being, and the same is true of our pets. What are some ways you could increase your pets choices around your home?

When to seek help with a training problem?

I’m sure most trainers will agree with me in saying that it is easier to prevent a problem that treat one. With pets this would mean setting the animals in our homes up for success in a human environment, teaching them the behaviours they will need to live happily with us. Sadly we often expect that our pets will just know what we want, and we wait for them to make a mistake before getting worried.

So what about a pet that is already displaying annoying or unwanted behaviours? When is it enough of a problem to seek the help of a trainer or veterinarian? In my work as a vet nurse I often hear people joking, commenting, or even complaining about the latest string of bad behaviour their pet is displaying. It’s often something minor, like the dog barking at guests, and they’re not asking for advice or a solution – they’re just sharing.

anxiety dog trainer

Minor problems, either left untreated or approached in the wrong way, often become major problems over time. That dog that used to just bark at guests? If his owners had of considered that the dog was wary or anxious they could have sought help to change his feelings with people visiting from wary to positive. Instead they scolded him for barking and tried to bring him over to meet new people and get used to them. His anxiety increases, and he starts growling and snapping instead.

It is always easier to address a training or behaviour problem sooner rather than later, and i’m not talking about easier for the trainer or veterinarian you’ve hired to help! You will ultimately be the one following the training program and putting in the time to resolve the problem. Minor problems are usually less challenging for the animals to overcome as well. It’s just all-round easier!

Practice makes perfect – if you notice your pet doing something you’re not entirely happy with, then don’t let him practice it! Look for a force-free training solution, and if you’re not sure how to start then seek help from a professional.

Myth Busting: Dominance and Dogs

This is a topic i am extremely passionate about. I still remember when i got my first dog at 13 years old and a trainer came to our home to help me with training my new puppy. It was all about “uh uh!!” and “no!!” and most importantly about establishing myself as the “alpha” dog.

dominance dog trainerA long time ago, some research was done on a group of captive wolves. The researchers observed that there seemed to be a whole lot of conflict in the group leading to there being an alpha male and female and a group of subordinate wolves. The dog community liked the term “alpha” and, figuring that dogs descended from wolves, decided that to train their dogs they would have to be “alpha” too. This led to trainers instructing people to go through a range of routines, such as being first through doors, never letting dogs on furniture, always eating before their dog, etc, all in an effort to be “alpha” in the “pack”. In extreme situations people were even instructed to pin their dogs on their back until they “submitted”.

Since this original research was done, zoologists and others in the scientific community have spent time observing wild wolves and have found that these wolves actually live in family groups. Just like in a human family the breeding pair (parents) are naturally the leaders, and the offspring from previous litters live cooperatively to help hunt and raise the new litter. Eventually the older offspring will leave to find their own mates, and they will then become the leaders in their own pack. They are not vying for “dominance” or to be “alpha”, they are living and breeding cooperatively in a way that improves species survival.

Watch David Mech, original researcher who coined the term “alpha”, explain why it is no longer relevant.

It is important to note that wolves don’t usually physically fight amongst their pack/family over things like “status”, and even scuffles over resources are highly ritualized – meaning the wolves use their well developed range of body language to diffuse conflict before it becomes physical (it is a waste of energy, and a survival risk, to get physical with your own family in the wild). This raises questions about the validity of any kind of checking, tapping, or other “bite” substitutes traditional trainers use “to mimic dog behaviour” when correcting a dog.

dog body languageWe have also got a lot more information on how wild/feral dogs live in various parts of the world. Rather than working cooperatively in a group, or pack, they tend to live independently in areas rich in resources (such as at tips, or in villages). Rather than hunting to take down large prey, they scavenge alone. They come together to mate, and even that is random – not based on who is “alpha”.

So we know that wolves don’t waste energy vying for alpha status, and we know that despite common ancestry, feral dogs behave and live in completely different ways to wolves. So why are we still “dominating” our pet dogs?

Dominance, as it applies to dogs, is not about status but rather about resources. If you have two dogs, one might always be first to get to the food (or perhaps it can take food from the other). This dog is dominant in that context. When it comes to play the other dog might get the ball first, and so it would be dominant during play. It is a description of behaviour in context, not a description of personality type, and it is a fluid state.

Describing certain behaviours, such as jumping up, stealing food, and rushing through doors, as the dog being “dominant” is not only flawed, but it instantly puts us in a confrontational state of mind. We have to show the dog who is boss!! Actually, dogs jump up to get closer to our face, a natural dog greeting, and because we often accidentally reinforce behaviours such as this. They steal food because it tastes great, and we haven’t taught them not to. And they rush through doors because there is something good on the other side. These are training problems, not personality problems.

We need to stop using dominance as an excuse to bully our dogs. Rather than pushing them around and engaging in pointless routines, we can be good leaders by showing our dogs what we want them to do in ways they can understand, such as through positive reinforcement training, and motivate them to do it again next time. Try it, your dog will appreciate it!

Force-free is “fad-free”

Here’s a newsflash, force-free training has been used with great success for DECADES. In the world of animal training there are always “fads” that come and go with popular culture. People jump on the bandwagon and ride it till it crashes. But not force-free training.

Force-free training refers to the scientifically-based training principles of applied behaviour analysis, changing behaviour through classical and operant conditioning. Force-free training particularly focuses on changing behaviour through the method that is least invasive, and minimally aversive (meaning least unpleasant to the animal). This could mean managing the environment in a way that makes the problem less likely to occur, medical management, conditioning a new response to a negative stimulus, or training new behaviours through positive reinforcement. Force-free trainers understand how to apply other methods, but with all the kinder options available feel that it is not in the interest of the animals welfare to use them routinely.

Force-free training using operant conditioning was explored by the Brelands in the 1950s, and shortly after it became popular with marine mammal trainers in zoos. They would train dolphins to perform spectacular behaviours by using a training tool called a “bridge” (a clicker or whistle) to mark behaviours they liked and then rewarding the dolphins with fish. Once a behaviour has been caught, it can be shaped into the final goal.

dog training begging positive reinforcementThrough the 70s, 80s, and beyond, and woman named Karen Pryor began to apply the principles she learned as a dolphin trainer to dogs and horses. And so it all began! Karen Pryor puts my thoughts into words perfectly in the following statement:

“We have been training animals for thousands of years, and we almost never ask them to DO something! To bring their own abilities to the table. To think. If you’ll excuse the expression.”

Read the rest of Karen Pryor’s History of Clicker Training here.

Gone are the days where we need to rely on punishment-based training methods to stop our pets behaving in certain ways. We know better now, and the information on how to start is freely available online. No excuses, let’s start teaching!

Are you speaking the same language as your pet?

Here’s a little piece of information that might blow your mind. Our pets don’t speak English, any more than we speak dog, cat, or bird! They also have their own unique way of communicating through body language, and this is something that us humans just can’t replicate (despite what some trainers would have you believe).

Most animals have evolved with their range of visual and vocal communication as a means of keeping in touch with their group, letting other individuals know where the sweet resources are, and diffusing conflict before it becomes a physical confrontation. What else do you need to survive? You can speak to your mates, find the goodies, and stop the baddies before anyone gets hurt – that is survival 101 sorted!

dog trainer body languageCan you imagine how confusing it is for our pets when they try to let us know something, using their perfectly clear language, and we completely blow them off! Maybe they’re showing stress signals to let us know they’re unsure what we want or frightened by something, and we insist on repeating ourselves (usually at a higher volume) or making them stay somewhere they feel scared. Or perhaps they’re trying to alert us to a potential intruder (like those pesky piwis that fly over the yard) and we scold them for their efforts. They’re doing what they know, and we sure aren’t helping them out!

As if our ignorance of our pets language isn’t enough, we like to think we know so much about the topic that we can successfully imitate their body language in a way that they will understand. Many trainers advocate pinning dogs down, “tapping” them with a foot or curved hand to imitate a bite, and many other unnecessary acts all with the assumption that this is how our pets naturally communicate so this must be the best way to get through to them.

Last time i looked in a mirror i looked nothing like a dog, or a cat, or a bird, and i respect the animals i work and live with enough to know that they can see i’m not the same species as they are either. At best our efforts to mimic them are confusing, and at worst they’re downright cruel.

Rather than trying to get in touch with our inner-animal, we can use scientifically-based methods to show our pets what we want them to do (through shaping, luring, targeting, etc) and provide rewarding consequences when they succeed. This is how we can bridge that language gap! Better yet, we can also learn about the species we keep, and learn to recognise what their body language means. That way, if they are happy we can encourage them, and if they’re scared we can be their advocate and make them feel more comfortable. That’s our responsibility to the animals in our care – to be clear and to work hard to provide them with physical and psychological well being.

Why “shut down” is different to well-trained

With the reign of popular dominance/punishment-based trainers on television and in book stores, force-free trainers are faced with the challenge of educating people on the differences between having a “shut down” pet and a well-trained one.

When you use punishment-based methods in animal training, what you are essentially doing is suppressing behaviour. You are saying “no, don’t do that…not that either…or that”. The result for many pets trained this way is that they simply “shut down” and stop offering behaviour. These pets lose interest in their surroundings. If they don’t interact with their world, then they won’t get punished. They withdraw into themselves.

Dog TrainingUnfortunately, many people, in the absence of the problem behaviours, see their pet as “cured”. Does it matter that their pet is now a shadow of its former self if they are no longer having to put up with annoying problem behaviours?

For anyone who has experienced the delight of training with positive reinforcement the answer is obvious, of course it matters! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, birds, or any other species, rely on us – we influence their whole world. When they eat, play, exercise, and rest are all largely controlled by our decisions. We should be committed to enriching their lives in our care, which means providing them with plenty of opportunities to behave and act on their environment in a meaningful way. We can do this through positive reinforcement.

Rather than punish our pets for behaving in ways that annoy us, we can take a moment to plan and set their environment up to encourage good behaviours. We can purposefully train them to do behaviours we like, and motivate them with things they like so that they actually want to listen when we ask. And we can provide them with physical and mental stimulation so that when our lives call us away (to work, or social activities) our pets can rest happily in our absence. This is a well-trained pet!

Positive dog trainingIt’s time that we pet owners take a modern, force-free approach to pet training and ownership. If our pets are misbehaving we should see it as a training problem, not a pet problem. Training is our responsibility, and we should approach it with our pets welfare as the number one priority!

What is positive reinforcement?

There are some misconceptions out there about what positive reinforcement is – some people see it as bribery, others think treats are limited just to tricks, and some think that praise or petting alone mean they’re training with positive reinforcement.

By definition, positive reinforcement is something that is added to your pets environment to increase a particular behaviour. It is a consequence that motivates your pet to do that again. Often the thing that we add is food, because all living things eat and so can be motivated by food, but we can also add a beloved toy, a game of tug, a belly rub or head scratch, or anything else your pet likes. That’s the key, it has to be something your pet likes.

dog chew reinforcementYou can tell whether or not what you’re doing is positively reinforcing to your pet, because if it is they will do that behaviour more often! If you give your dog a pat on the head whenever he sits, and he starts avoiding you when you cue a sit, then being petted is not reinforcing to your dog because the behaviour is decreasing. On the other hand you might offer your dog a treat each time he sits, causing him to sit more often. Now you have positively reinforced sitting!

People mistakenly think that positive reinforcement is the same as bribery, but it is very different. When you’ve been bribed, you can see your reward and are working with the knowledge you are about to get it. In training this would be luring, when you hold a treat or toy in front of your pet to get them to do something. The reward in positive reinforcement is unknown to your pet, but it knows through past training that usually you come up with something good!

The really cool thing is that through training, more and more things can become positively reinforcing to your pet because of great associations they’ve made with them in the past. Sometimes even the opportunity to respond to a certain cue can be motivating to your pet. It is this versatility that makes positive reinforcement so great – you might be empty handed, but that doesn’t have to mean you can’t reward a job well done!

Is your pet motivated?

Begging Dog

There are a range of factors that influence whether or not your pet will perform a behaviour when you ask, but a big one that is often overlooked is motivation. You’ve asked your pet to do something, now they’re wondering “what’s in it for me?”

Many people hold the belief that our pets, particularly our dogs, should do what we say “to please us”. There are a number of things wrong with this expectation, but in particular is the fact that animals don’t live by what’s right or wrong in the world but rather by what brings them good things and what causes bad things to happen. They repeat behaviours that bring them good outcomes, and avoid behaviours that lead to bad things happening.

Which brings us back to motivation. You’ve asked your dog to come, but he’s having a blast barking at dog on the other side of the fence. You’re empty handed, and you sound mad. What’s in it for him? Not much! He could stay at the fence having a blast, or he could come to you and get in trouble. He has no concept that it will please you if he comes on cue, he is just interested in how it affects his day.

There are a range of ways you can motivate your pet to work with you instead of ignoring you. Try using favourite treats, games, toys, attention, and praise during training. If you can teach him that listening to you leads to all his favourite things happening, then the stakes are in your favour next time you cue a behaviour. The more good history you build, the better the stakes get for you.

Next time your pet seems to blow you off when you ask him to do something, take a minute to think about what you’re offering him in return. Are you asking him to stop doing something he’s enjoying? Then you had better up your game!