January 30, 2014
Our training plan - Tammy would take the older puppies and their handlers into the other classroom for AKC CGC (Canine Good Citizen) testing. I would run a "puppy" class with the growing group of younger pups.
Fortunately, Tammy suggested this prior to our visit so I had time to consult with Laura Fisher, Puppy Development Coordinator at Leader Dogs for the Blind. Laura teaches the under-four-months group at the bi-monthly training sessions held on the Leader Dog campus. The weekend classes, offered to all puppy raisers, are divided into three age groups, the under-four-months, four-to-nine-months (taught by Deb Donnelly), and over-nine-months (taught by Tammy). Other puppy counselors and volunteers assist as needed.
Laura was kind enough to send me a long list of information that she covers in two days: expectations, name recognition, sit, reward markers, touch, around, loose leash walking, leave it, relaxation protocol and down. I would only have an hour or two.
I set my camera down. My mouth was dry as I stood in the middle of the room gripping my list, all eyes on me. I am not used to taking the lead.
Off to my right, an excited FLD Kayla was not at all interested in what I was about to say. She jumped up on Kim's legs. The inmate who was handling Kayla said, "Off!" The pup dropped to four-on-the-floor. The inmate "clicked" and gave Kayla a treat.
I folded up my list and put it into my pocket. The topic for my puppy class had just defaulted to "reward markers."
A "marker," as defined on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, is "a signal used to mark desired behavior at the instant it occurs." The marker can be a "click" or a word such as "YES" and it acts as a bridge between the precise behavior and delivery of the subsequent reward.
These motivated Chippewa inmates have educated themselves with books on positive dog training, many of which they purchased with their own money. Deb and Tammy and I have been impressed with the work they've done with their puppies. Even though I sometimes feel only a step ahead of the group (the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know), I thought I still might be able to help them bring their knowledge up a notch. I would raise the criteria for them, much as we do with our puppies when they learn a new behavior.
What ensued was a lively discussion about how the (mis) timing of a marker might inadvertently reinforce the behavior we don't want instead of the behavior we want, about waiting for the reward-able moment when the puppy makes the right decision on its own and marking that, about how the behavior "sticks" when the puppy is rewarded for choosing the correct behavior instead of responding to a command, about how proper placement of the reward can set the stage for learning.
A thinking puppy, accustomed to making decisions - this is the kind of puppy that Leader Dogs for the Blind wants us to raise.
Kim proved to be a good foil. "She's been doing that a lot lately," she said about Kayla's jumping up behavior. Kim admitted that she has done the same thing, telling Kayla "off" and rewarding her for putting four feet back onto the floor.
"How's that working for you?" I asked. "Not so good," Kim replied.
It was time to try something different. I suggested ignoring the jumping behavior, to wait until Kayla put her four feet on the floor on her own. "Mark and reward that moment," I said. "And try placing the treat on the floor instead of handing it to the puppy. The behavior you reward will be the behavior that will be repeated. Trust that."
The active interaction with the group helped me gain confidence. I hope the raisers gained something as well.