Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Understanding Dog Mushing Cues

Just for giggles and grins, I decided to put together a little video explaining the cues I use to direct the behavior of my dogs.  While the video is uploading to YouTube, I thought I'd elaborate about my training methods a bit.

There really aren't any big secrets about how to train dogs.  My methods rely upon "operant conditiong", which is "the process of changing an animal’s response to a certain stimulus by manipulating the consequences that immediately follow the response."  When training static behaviors (in other words, when standing still), I rely heavily on clicker training, and there are many running behaviors I'll start training with a clicker, and then further refine while running.  Clicker training is a subset of operant conditioning, using only positive reinforcement, extinction, and, to a lesser extent, negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement is adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behavior. For example, giving the dog a treat for sitting in order to increase the probability that the dog will sit again.  Extinction is the weakening of behavior through non-reinforcement or “ignoring” the behavior. In extinction, nothing is added or removed from the environment. For example, a treat lies on the other side of a fence. A dog reaches his paw under, but cannot reach the treat. Because reaching for the treat doesn’t work—because it isn’t reinforced through success—the dog will eventually quit reaching for the treat.  Negative punishment is taking away something the animal will work for to suppress (lessen the frequency of) a behavior. For example, a dog jumps on you to get attention. By turning your back or leaving the room, you apply P- by removing the attention he wants.

Sled dogs find running to be an intrinsically rewarding activity - in operant conditioning terms dogs that have been bred to run and pull NEED to run, making it a primary renforcer which is a reinforcer that the animal is born needing, like food, water and sex.   So, humane training of dog mushing cues can be pretty simple.  Just stop the team, and when the dogs perform the behavior you want get the heck off the break and let them run.

It's a bit more complicated than that, because no matter how quickly you remove your feet from the brake, there is a time delay before the team and sled can start moving.  To tell the dog the reward is coming, we use a marker.  A marker is a signal used to mark desired behavior at the instant it occurs.   The 'click' of a clicker is a marker, but clickers are cumbersome to use on the trail, so when mushing I use a 'voice click', a simple easy to say term that tells the dogs the primary reinforcer (the reward) is coming.  I use the word "good" or sometimes "yes" as the marker, and try to remember to always follow it up with "good dog" or "well done" as the dogs are finishing the cued behavior.

So, what the heck is a "cue"?   A cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior.  A cue may be verbal ("sit" or "come"), physical (hand signals) or even environmental such as the presence or absence of an object.  Verbal cues are most common in dog mushing, because it's hard for dogs to watch for hand signals or other cues while they are running.

So, with no further ado, here is a video demonstrating the cues I used most often when training and running my little recreational dog team.

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