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Animal Training


Animal Training is both an art and a science. The science of applied behavior is a fascinating world. There are several universities in the United States that are noted for their outstanding professors and programs on the subject of behavior analysis. Animal models are commonly used to demonstrate and teach students the fundamentals of behavior analysis.

There are some well known experts on animal behavior who have made it their life's work to educate the general public and the animal training community about behavior analysis. Most of the experts mentioned here have written books on the subject for layman and professional alike. We encourage you to seek out their work should you be interested in furthering your knowledge of behavior analysis.

The International Association for Behavior Analysis is a world wide association based on the work of B.F Skinner and other noted scientific researchers. The conventions of this organization draw together thousands of university professors, scientists and others together to present their work to each other and further the science. Catherine Crawmer has demonstrated applied work with a number of species at these conventions, including a lion, tiger, house cat, goat, horse, koi fish, parrot and a vulture. At one convention Catherine presented with Karen Pryor and others on the new theory of adduction, presenting a video demonstrating its application.

A vulture is not something people tend to think about when it comes to entertainment or the science of applied behavior analysis but Catherine Crawmer gave the world both with the training of a cara cara bird. This video was literally shown all over the world to academics as well as animal trainers in such notable venues as the conventions of The Marine Mammal Trainers Association, The American Association of Zoo Keepers, The International Association of Behavior Analysis and the North American Falconry Association. The training of this vulture has been used to teach the science of applied behavior by Kent Johnson, Ph.D of Morningside Academy, Gary Wilkes well known dog trainer and behavior expert, Karen Pryor, author of many books on animal training and founder of the Karen Pryor Academy, Sharon Kirkpatrick Sanchez, MS and others including Jon Bailey, Ph.D (see document below)

Catherine Crawmer served as the newsletter editor of the Animal Training SIG (special interest group) of the Int. Association for Behavior Analysis for two years and served as chair of a paper session where the presenters were Thad Lacinik of Sea World, Ken Rameriz of Shed Aquarium and Tim Sullivan of the Brookfield Zoo.

Catherine's work has also included the first ever house cat trained to do an agility course. This video is all over the internet, on the web sites of many trainers, and was the catalyst for what has become the sport of cat agility. This video has been shown all over the world by Karen Pryor and other noted behavior experts and is presently included in the Karen Pryor Academy 6 month dog trainer course curriculum.

Catherine has trained a number of house cats including the first and, at this point the only, cat trained to negotiate a full size dog agility course in its entirety, including a full size see-saw, all done in an outdoor venue. This video was shown at Tuft University during a convention for animal trainers.

Catherine's book Here Kitty Kitty; Catherine Crawmer on Training Cats has become a classic on the subject and is recommended by many notable behavior experts including Susan G. Freidman Ph.D of the Gabriel Foundation. This book also won the 2002 Kuykendall Image Award and Muse Medallian offered by the Cat Writer's Association

Some Science Based Articles by Catherine Crawmer


Catherine J. Crawmer

In the early 70s a very frustrated woman approached me after class. She had two dogs with exactly the same issue. This was a competitive person who put a lot of time into her dogs. There was no rally and no agility at that time. AKC obedience was the focus. There were three titles which could be earned by the dog all of which involved “stays”. To “break” a stay was automatic failure in a competition. The frustration for this handler was her dogs always held the stay positions when she practiced at home. In training class both dogs were more likely to “break position” than not. The first solution was to train the dogs at locations other than at home. This makes perfect sense. Obviously, working in the presence of distracting stimuli, in unfamiliar environments, would be the answer. But, in this case, it wasn’t. She trained them everywhere; city streets, squirrel infested parks and even on the beach. She reported that they stayed very well everywhere yet the problem in class was not improved. She even brought them to the training area we use for the classes and trained them on her own with no problem on the stays. Her efforts did not improve the outcome. The stays in class were hit and miss.

I had watched her train by herself on several occasions when she didn’t know I was watching. It was obvious that she was determined to solve the problem. She had a right to be frustrated. Something was wrong. After watching her one day I noticed something. I got a stop watch and started to time her. After observing several stays I noticed that the duration of the process varied little. We had previously talked about varying the length of time the dogs were left and she said she was doing that in practice. However, I had the stop watch and the stop watch didn’t lie. In practice she returned to the staying dogs on her own but in class the instructor determined the timing of the return. Because of the way the class was run and the widely varying number of participants the length of the stays was inconsistent and her dogs were “breaking” the stays. The interesting part of it was that the lady was sure she had been varying the stay times in practice. She was genuinely surprised when it became evident that she had not.

Great. Half a page of reading and you now know the reason why some woman’s dogs broke a stay! At the time I was happy about the fix for this individual, but over the years I started to see human time perception as a significant issue in a host of performance-based dog training.

Time perception in humans is a field of scientific study and not a new one. Karl von Vierordt, in 1868, recorded his work known as Vierdordt’s Law. This law relates perceived duration of time to actual duration. He recorded that, “Shorter intervals tend to be overestimated while longer intervals tend to be underestimated”. It was also found that auditory stimuli may seem to last longer than visual stimuli. Time perception is influenced by a host of things including stress, fear and task complexity. It is also influenced by factors such as age, even temperature!

You don’t have to do much research before you find that time perception in humans is a very complex area of study. Pretty interesting stuff for sure but we don’t want to get too far off in the weeds. What’s it got to do with dog training? Plenty. Where do we need duration, often sustained duration, in performance? Where don’t we need it? Training for tracking, search work, scent detection, manwork and obedience, to name a few. All influenced by the human perception of time. Exposure to stressful or unfamiliar situations may have to be introduced with time of exposure varied. We know this, of course, but we must be cognizant of our own deficiencies in time perception to ensure that we are relying on what is rather than what we feel. Did I really practice the search for as long as I did yesterday? Are the finds presented on a consistent schedule? When the stop watch is employed I may find that I am training a time-based performance that will lead to real deficiencies in real life situations.

Recently, I was presented with a question from a competitor who had a major problem during a competition. The dog and handler are highly competitive and extremely successful. Before the event she determined that she would concentrate on improving heeling. She uses food as a reinforcement and she went to work over a one-week period. Fantastic results! Perfect positioning. Then she got in the ring. No food here. During the heeling portion of the routine the dog suddenly started jumping on her leg and running around, obviously very frustrated, a behavior this dog had never done before. Horrified, she left the show and started more work on the heeling and, surprise, surprise, he never did it again in practice. While working on the “improvement” she had also established a high rate of reinforcement delivered on a consistently timely schedule. She “knows” that she varied the timing of the reinforcement but, because she depended on her own perception of time, she was wrong.

The time schedule of reinforcement is a significant factor in all dog training. Practice is one thing but real-life deployment can quickly “throw a wrench into the works” if a dog has not been trained for duration of performance on a variable schedule of both work time and reinforcement. What does it mean when a false indication is made on a search? Why would a great dog just “quit”? Why would a dog suddenly stop working to present a formerly heavily reinforced behavior which has absolutely nothing to do with the job at hand?

A dog knows what time he gets fed. He knows what time he goes for a walk. When a dog has been working for the duration of time that he has been trained to work he expects a reward. When the work exceeds that time and no reward is forthcoming it is not unusual for the, now frustrated, dog to stop working and do something different. He may sit, lie down or present some other behavior that has been heavily rewarded in the past in order to gain reinforcement on the time schedule for which he has been trained.

It is so easy for humans to fall into a time consistent training routine. Dogs learn it quite quickly. We know we should avoid these routines as trainers because we know how important it is to vary the time we work. In pursuit of this goal we might consider the possibility that our own human deficiency of time perception may be a factor. A stop watch and a clock should be part of our training equipment. A training log, always a good idea, can fine tune a training program to include time intervals based on fact rather than our faulty human perception of time. Producing videos of training sessions are valuable because they can be reviewed. Keep in mind that an objective observer, with a stopwatch can record some very interesting tendencies, as long as the handler doesn’t know it is happening. When we know we are being watched let alone timed, we tend to change our behavior. That being said, it is prudent to incorporate empirical information into training sessions. Let’s not guess. A stopwatch and a clock don’t lie.

Catherine J. Crawmer

Straight Into Circles

Catherine J. Crawmer

Heeling. The word varies in meaning to dog trainers bringing to mind anything from a struggle to an art form. The beauty of a handler and dog moving as one in a series of directional and speed changes is the ideal. Competitions have been won and lost on heeling performance. While the basic definition of a dog maintaining position on the handler’s left side seems simple enough the complex nature of the training to achieve that goal remains undeniable. Point loss during the heeling exercise can be substantial, ruining an otherwise notable obedience performance. During the heeling exercise, rather than one major fault, it is likely to be the compilation of a few faults here and a few there that ultimately represent the totality of point loss. Repetition of lagging, forging, bumping the handler and wide turns can add up pretty quickly during a heeling pattern.

When faults accumulate and all over performance is affected adversely it is common practice to try something different. What collar to use, what leash, how to hold the leash, treats, praise, toys or no toys and when to do what are subjects worth exploring. Then, of course, not every dog or every handler responds equally or predictably to stimuli of any kind. The cures for problems can range from simple to exotic and get plenty confusing.

As in most sports, when deficiencies of performance appear at the higher level one of the most useful, yet most resisted, solutions should be an exploration of the basics. How did we get to where we are now?

It was at a Glen Johnson tracking seminar that I was introduced to a very significant basic species- specific tendency. Glen Johnson, author of Tracking Dog Theory & Methods published in 1975, also held seminars on the subject. At the first seminar of his, that I attended, the participants met on a dirt roadway surrounded, on both sides, by flat grass fields, mowed short. Everyone was told to take out a dollar and find a small stone to weigh it down with. We were to walk straight out 50 paces, put down our dollar and come back to the road. When everyone completed the task, he told us to go out now and get it. With great confidence we went right out to retrieve our dollar, only 50 paces from where we placed it, straight out, not ten minutes prior. How hard could it be? How many of us returned with our dollar? None.

For those training tracking dogs it is important to correctly lay a track. There is a lot to it, variable surfaces, wind direction, extraneous scents are just a few of the considerations. However, the first lesson of the day at the seminar really surprised the participants. Humans don’t walk in a straight line even when we think we are doing just that. There are ways, of course, to lay straight legs of track and if you train tracking dogs it is a necessary skill set. The walking patterns of lost persons is another consideration for those involved in rescue. However, it seems logical to conclude that most people will live an entire lifetime unaware that our species tends to drift and ultimately circle when walking.

Not involved in tracking? No SAR either? Some interesting tendencies will be familiar to those conducting dog training group programs. Commonly, the group moves in a circular pattern during heeling exercises with the instructor in the middle. Rather than broaden the circle to take advantage of the available space the group gradually moves toward the center making the circle progressively smaller. In an hour length training class, the instructor is likely to direct group members to move outward repeatedly.

Though the group training for the handler and dog team is important most of the training is done on their own where the human tendency to drift and circle continues unabated. The dog quickly adjusts his position to his own best advantage. If the handler predictably drifts and circles right the dog is likely to stay ahead of the ideal heel position. Since he is continually moving right his position reflects it. Should the handler step straight forward he may find the dog directly in his path. Handlers drifting and circling left may have a dog maintaining space between himself and his handler to avoid being bumped into or stepped on. Not all dogs handle the walking patterns of their handler the same way but observation will demonstrate that the dog is learning to accommodate his handler’s walking pattern by adjusting his own. The left, right, about turns and left about turns are also affected by the handler’s movement tendencies. Ideally, when a 180 degree about turn is done the team should be walking along the same line as before the direction change. That rarely happens without the handler’s intent to do just that.

One of the most obvious deficiencies of not moving in a straight line is demonstrated when teaching the dog to go to heel from the front position. Commonly, at the beginning stages, the handler will step backward bringing the dog backward and then step forward bringing the dog forward into position to sit at heel. The goal is to reduce the handler’s movements as the lessons progress to the point where the handler remains stationary while the dog goes back and forward bringing himself into proper heel position. When the handler does not move straight back and then straight forward at the early stages of the training the dog is not likely move correctly when the handler stands still.

As with many problems the first step is to admit that there is one. Humans don’t naturally walk in a straight line. We drift and we circle even when we are sure we are moving in a straight line. Having recognized the issue, it is not difficult to fix. Without going into a lot of track laying techniques there are some solutions better than others to promote walking in a straight line. First, walking toward a single focal point, while better than nothing, is not likely to result in walking in a straight line. The prospective is “off” and the further out the focal point the more pronounced the deficiency. Two or more focal points is more accurate but for our purpose here it isn’t necessary to go into a lot of track laying detail.

Placing two cones, wide enough to accommodate the dog and handler between them, placed in a designated heeling pattern is helpful. Rectangles and square paths are best. Circles should be avoided, especially in group programs. On the turns using 4 cones works well, two at the turn with two more close by bringing the team sharply into the new direction.

I was fortunate enough to attend seminars on obedience competition conducted by Bob Self and Jack Godsil. Some of the “old timers” will recognize the names. Bob Self was an AKC obedience judge, Jack Godsil was a professional trainer of competition dogs, in both obedience and retrieving. At one of those seminars Jack Godsil described a method he used to train competitive retrievers. He let a field grow up a bit and then used a walk behind mower to cut a narrow and straight path out. By adding a mowed path to both the left and right off his straight path he was able to teach casting. Casting is important to send the dog directly to a downed bird. The dog must learn to take direction from a considerable distance straight out to a downed bird. Interestingly, dogs don’t seem to have any problem moving straight out to a specific point.

I have used this grass mowing system to teach a number of things over the years including go outs, retrieving and heeling. It works well. Keep in mind that an effort must be made to mow a straight path. This will take some effort and planning. Marking off straight lines can be done many ways including roped off chutes, chalk lines, fence lines, natural barriers and the lasers used by those involved in construction. While a host of equipment and techniques can be utilized to promote moving in a straight line the most important point is the recognition that we need them.

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