I have great admiration for trainers who work with non-domesticated animals. I just love to see a walrus open their mouth on cue to have their tusks measured or see an elephant place their giant foot on a stool to have their nails done. All done voluntarily on the animal’s part.
Losing My Dog’s Trust
I have two dogs, Briards, who have lots of hair and double dewclaws. When they were puppies, I habituated them to getting brushed, nails trimmed, etc. I never really had a considerable problem grooming them UNTIL a local veterinarian manhandled them for a procedure.
Needless to say, this was extremely unfortunate because all of the sudden that wonderful trust was replaced with panic. Literally, I could not even touch their paws anymore. They would run away in horror.
Taking Matters Into My Own Hands
I decided though that I really ought to be able to handle this. After all, I should know how to do this. But I ran into difficulties. The fear of being touched was so great that I dealt with many errors.
Yes, they would offer the paw but withdraw so suddenly and unexpectedly that I could not get any duration in order to actually comb, or I would be able to touch with the brush or the scissors but again, too many quick withdrawals and so my timing of the reward delivery must have been off: somehow.
What was I doing wrong?
Then I remembered watching a couple of demo videos that Mary Hunter of BehaviorExplorer.com posted and how I observed that she started the teaching process to get a duration behavior one preparatory step earlier than I would have.
In other words: I guess I tended to take too much knowledge for granted as my teaching starting point. At first, it struck me as “interesting.”
But then, as I was trying to analyze why on earth I could not successfully counter the bad experience Snorri had and offer his paw voluntarily for me to groom and handle it without withdrawing it in a panic, a lightbulb went on: I needed to make the “hold/touch/handle” increment so short and tiny that I would be able to reward him for that tiny split second.
Lightbulb Moment: Communication, Trust, and Love
So, I rewarded him for the shortest amount of time while still successful. AND WOW! Suddenly, Snorri understood that it was not the renewed offering of the paw I was concerned with but the permission to handle the paw. Of course, this seems obvious in hindsight, but frankly, it was a great revelation to me.
So, if you read this and think: OMG, but I don’t have the patience for that, let me assure you that having experienced making Snorri understand and actually getting the core duration behavior was inspiring and self-reinforcing. The progression was so much more efficient and fun for both of us. We figured things out together. And really, that’s what it is all about—communication, trust, and love.
I am very excited to learn more about errorless learning, and I will be happy to share my experiences with you.