Friday, September 25, 2009

HAWS and Lad Lake

I mentioned in a previous post that I was doing a program with Lad Lake -- a non-profit organization that provides services for at-risk kids.

Other shelters have worked with at-risk kids having them do dog training at their facility. Positive reinforcement training animals can teach the trainers patience, good communication skills and instill empathy. That makes dog training the perfect activity to do with kids who may need help in these areas.

This semester I'm working with 5 boys who range in age from 12 to 18 years. So far I have enjoyed working with them immensely. They are polite, follow directions well, and really seem to be enjoying the experience.

In addition to the dog training, I am also doing a 15 to 20 minute presentation each time they visit on a dog related topic. While I know much of this information already, it's been fun researching the material and putting together the slide presentations. My hope is that the boys will understand that learning can be fun and that it can be applied to something they're doing in the real world.
The top photo is of Michael with one of our adoptable 8 week-old Lab mix puppies. And to the right is Mike training 1-year old easily excited Mia to sit and calm down.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Whatever Happened to Little Albert?

I'm doing a semester-long project with a group of boys from Lad Lake -- a non-profit organization that provides services to at-risk youth. Twice a week five boys from their Day Education Program come to HAWS to learn about dog behavior, training and other topics and actually do some hands on work with our adoptable dogs.

Part of the program involves a 15 or 20 minute presentation - a different topic each visit. Currently I'm working on a presentation on Classical Conditioning. Classical Conditioning involves a stimulus of an involuntary behavior with an stimulus that wouldn't normally cause that involuntary behavior. An example would be if a dog is terrified of loud noises. Initially he's afraid during storms when he hears thunder, but after a while becomes afraid when he sees lightning, because lightning predicts thunder.

While surfing the web and doing my research I came across the story of "Little Albert". If you took Psychology 101 you might remember this experiment done by John B. Watson in 1920. Watson wanted to show that humans are a product of their environment, NOT of their genetics.

It truly was a horrible experiment -- and it shows how little scientists back then cared for their subjects, and how poor ethical standards were at the time. His experiment consisted of exposing a 9 month old child named Albert to a variety of animals, towards which the child was not fearful. Watson then exposed the child to a white rat, and paired it with a loud clanging noise. Albert WAS afraid of the noise. After a while Albert became afraid of the rat, even when the noise wasn't present. Furthermore, he generalized it to ALL furry animals.

Unfortunately for Albert, he was removed from the study before Watson could attempt reverse his fear by counter-conditioning. There isn't any record of Albert after this, so for all we know the poor guy spent the rest of his life terrified of animals. Fortunately we've come a long way since 1920 -- scientists would never be allowed to perform an experiment such as this on a child today.

I was aware of this experiment before today. What I didn't know, was that Watson filmed it and it can actually be seen on YouTube.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Help Me Take the Duck Out!

Not something that the average person hears at work, and not really common here around HAWS either. But when you work at a place where you take in animals of all kinds, it is likelier than if you work in an office building!

This unnamed duck was picked up as a stray. After being kept in isolation to see if she (he?) would be claimed he was finally given a reprieve and allowed to enjoy some time outside in sun soaking in a pool.

And yes, I did help take the duck out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pet Myths: Older Dogs Can't be Trained

Running the dog training program we hold here at HAWS, I have a lot of opportunities to talk to dog owners interested in having their dogs learn better manners. One question I get asked on occasion is, "He's already (5 year, 7 years, 9 years, etc), is it too late to train him". I always assure the owner that indeed their dog is not.

I've written quite a bit about Mystic who accompanies me on many of my HAWS education outings. My other dog is 13 year old Belle, a border collie mix -- possibly with Papillion, that I've had since she was about 8 months old. I don't use her for education programs because she gets over-whelmed with large numbers of kids trying to interact with her.

Despite the fact that she's lost some of her hearing, at 13 years of age Belle is still very agile, and her mind is still as sharp as ever.

Yesterday I held a program here at HAWS with a group of teenage boys. We were talking about dog training, and I announced that I would be bringing Mystic out to do a training demonstration. The boys asked for Belle instead, because they felt sorry for the poor dog that was whining to come out.

So I brought Belle out and did some clicker training with her. She was EXTREMELY pleased to be working, and was so focused on me I don't think she even noticed there were 6 adolescent kids in the room.

Clicker training involves no direction from the trainer, other than a click and a treat when the dog does something the trainer likes. It uses a process called shaping, in that the trainer clicks each small step that leads the dog towards the final desired behavior.

In Belle's case my intention was to train her to lie down with her head on the floor and a paw over her nose - it's something I see her do on occasion. First I was clicking her any time she lay down. Intially she was trying all the previous tricks she had been taught -- sit up, roll-over, crawl, and wave. After she was clicked several times for down it became her most offered behavior.

I then had to get her to rest her head on the floor. She was staring at me so that her head was directed upwards. I clicked anytime she lowered her head a bit, and made sure that the treat was delivered close to the floor.

It took 10 minutes, but finally she was laying down and resting her head on the floor. The next step would be to get that paw to cover her nose, but we ended it there. A good trainer trains a new behavior only a few minutes at a time because dogs actually learn faster that way. And you always end on a good note. I'm not always good at following those rules, but I wanted to make a good impression on the boys.

It was wonderful to see my senior dog have so much enthusiasm for learning after all these years. Both of us had a wonderful time, and I hope the boys learned something about older animals (people included) having value, and being capable of learning.