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Reaching the Animal Mind - Karen Pryor

Reaching the Animal Mind - Karen Pryor

Pure luck united me with Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind. I was picking up a library book when I glanced over at the new books. There was this dog looking back at me - I probably would have grabbed the book on cover alone. That it happened to be by Pryor, who's book Don't Shoot the Dog! opened my mind to operant conditioning and marker training, was a super-awesome bonus.

Don't open up this book expecting a treatise on clicker training or a manual on how to modify behavior. And if you've never heard of marker or clicker training, you might want to read up on the matter beforehand. You won't be missing out, of course, but I think you'll have a greater appreciation for the content if you have a basic understanding of the subject.

Anecdotes of the efficacy of marker training abound - from errant dogs to hard-headed horses to stubborn dolphins, Pryor weaves in decades of experience with the message, it can be done. It being that magic spark, that dance, that special relationship most people want from/with their companion animals. It can be fun, and anyone can do it!

While I thoroughly enjoyed the story-telling, as a person who feels other nonhumans are beings, not things, I had a hard time getting past the lack of personal pronouns. Clearly engaging, thinking animals are continually referred to as "it", with few exceptions. I have yet to meet a sofa or blanket who can problem solve like a dolphin or even show pretty neat cognitive abilities like the hermit crab and damselfish Pryor teaches. It was also hard for me to stomach all the dolphin stories. Most of the dolphins Pryor worked with happened to be wild-caught animals. These are animals who are generally incredibly social, who spend their time swimming great distances, and Pryor has a seemingly blase attitude about the capture and confinement of these animals while simultaneously expounding on their incredible intelligence and complex social structure.

That aside, the book also delves into the science behind why marker training works so well, why animals trained with clickers or cues learn twice as quickly and retain that information for longer periods of time than animals who are trained via compulsion, fear or, yeah, even positive reinforcement w/o cues. The amygdala and hypothalamus make an appearance

From the book, "Dogs that are working for cues don't act like dogs that are working for commands. They are merry and enthusiastic rather than somber and cautious; I have heard traditional trainers complain that these dogs are undignified, that they 'act like puppies.' Traditionally, I guess, highly trained dogs should not give the frivolous impression that they are also having fun!"

I've seen this in my own dogs. Mina has been worked with both positive and traditional methods. She worked okay with both, meaning she'll avoid unnecessary discomfort (from a prong) and seek out pleasurable things (cookies). But now that she's working with me on clicker training, the transformation is amazing. She's learning behaviors ten times quicker than with luring and cookies, far quicker than she'd probably learn if I was into physical manipulation. Mina's "working" pre-amble is "let's play" and then we clicker train for five-ten minutes. We do this twice a day on weekdays and four-five times a day on weekends. She is joyous. And intent. All that terrier intensity and bulldog stubbornness focused on figuring out what she needs to do to get that marker which gets her that treat. She's learned to put her paw on the sofa for a two-fingered cue, stand on blocks and wave her paw. This is about her choosing, and the choices she makes determines whether she gets what she wants or not. I love watching another animal (humans included) learn!

(As an aside, those of you with super leash reactive dogs - how successful have you been w/ the sporn-type harness? Mina sprained her back doing a back-flip with a head halter. It also increased her aggressive behavior than on a flat buckle or, yeah, prong collar. I've tried the regular halter w/ the leash hooked up to the front o-ring - not helpful. Right now, she works well on a prong. She may have a great heel, and she naturally walks a loose-lead, but when she sees another dog, all bets are off and she is in the zone. I haven't tried a real anti-pull halter, though. I have a feeling the clicker isn't going to be meaningful to Mina when she is in the zone, but on our next walk, perhaps I'll try.)

Celeste is equally joyful. She is a lot more forceful and excitable about the whole process. She takes a little longer than Mina too (who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? Mina's 11, Celeste is 2!) Right now we're working on "touch", which involves her nose touching my hand - it will help with heel, luring, etc. She gets far more frantic and a little nippy, so we've been working on gentle food scarfing. I just love the intent, serious look she gets on her face while we're working.

And I have to work too! I have to think about what I want the dog to do and how to convey that message to them. I have to be careful about what I mark. It's okay if I screw up, though - no one will be left scarred! I only have to reinforce the correct behavior 75% of the time for Mina or Celeste to learn that behavior. If I mess up 15-25% of the time, no harm, no foul. I like that about marker training.

If you have an interest in anecdotal stories with humor interjected about marker training, I really rec'd this book.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 17th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
Sounds like a good read...
...if a bit advanced for me, but that is my fault - my training skills are second to all. :)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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