“Men are trainable too,” dog trainer Colleen Shanahan happened to mention before starting a session with a 10-year-old barking fiend named Shaman, a 35 pound American Eskimo and purebred lover.
“Oh,” I replied, my interest piqued. For the sake of the column, I had Colleen over to demonstrate her positive “clicker training” approach. Her Ashland-based business is called DogGoneFun (www.doggonefun.biz)
“It’s true,” she replied, with her straight face cracking into a freckly smile. “But with men it just takes longer.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll bite. Any examples?”
In fact, Colleen came prepared with a great example, along with her sweet husband’s approval to share it. Like Shaman, who barks uncontrollably when someone comes to the door, husband Allen had his own, tsk-tsk, bad habit. He would leave his footwear “all over the house.” And it drove Colleen crazy.
Hence, the goal of the training: “For Allan to leave his shoes within only one small area.”
The premise: “Like dogs, most humans respond better to acknowledgment and attention than they do to aversives, like, say “persistent nagging.”
(At this point in the telling, Shaman’s “Mom,” my partner, perked up her ears and leaned in close to glean the secrets of “man training.” Frankly, I began to squirm.)
At the start, with Allan, Colleen relied on the operant conditioning principle of “shaping behaviors” or “successive approximations,” catching and immediately rewarding him when he would kick off his shoes anywhere even close to the target. Over time, she would limit the rewards to when he came progressively closer.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, thank you, Allen. I really appreciate your putting your shoes away,’ said Colleen. “Or I’d make a joke of it and say, ‘Good boy, good boy Allen, that’s good putting your shoes away.’” On the other hand, when he messed up, she would do her best to ignore it.
“After a while, it worked,” said Colleen. “I rarely find his shoes in the middle of the room.”
“How long a while?” my partner wondered aloud.
“It took a good year.”
“Damn,” said my partner.
“It doesn’t have to be that long,” Colleen reassures. “I think he would have been trained faster, if I’d been more consistent.” (She didn’t have to add, “Old dogs, new tricks.)
Colleen, 48, who’s been training dogs professionally since 1996 and for the past five years in Ashland, uses the clicker-training method, a variant of operant conditioning that’s been a staple for zoo keepers and marine mammal trainers for years. It relies first on pairing a clicking sound (from a toy clicker) with an almost-immediate reward to let the animal know you like what she is doing. The click, says Colleen, is like taking a snapshot of the exact behavior you want from the animal.
“We call it the microwave cooking of dog training, but it not only speeds training, it makes it fun,” said Colleen. “It’s simple. Like people, dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding and avoid those that aren’t. So, as a trainer—of dogs or husbands—you reward what you like and try to ignore what you don’t like.”
So what, we asked Colleen, would she do to help stop Shaman from throwing those barking fits and racing to the door every time someone knocks or rings the bell? As you can imagine, large parties, unless everyone comes at the same exact time, can trigger a painful cacophony.
Colleen began by pairing clicks with the hand-feeding of fingernail-size bits of Shaman’s to-die-for treat, a lamb sausage roll, along with a non-stop flow of praise. Once he had the concept, she began her first training session by knocking lightly on the outside of a bathroom door, rewarding with a click and food, and a “Good Dog!” for his silence; if he barked—and he barked almost every time at the start—she removed her attention, slipping behind the bathroom door.
While we were all having loads of fun watching Shaman train Colleen to repeatedly shut herself in the bathroom, it was clear that barking is not a behavior you can expect to extinguish overnight. Not only is Shaman’s breed known to be “barky,” said Colleen—he’s hardwired to bark—but for dogs, barking is its own reward.” (That could well explain why baseball managers will scream at umpires even when there’s no hope of getting a call changed; it must just feel good.)
For the next several 10-minute sessions, Colleen tried knocking on the inside of the front door, first softly and then more loudly, until Shaman responded without barking. I couldn’t gauge the degree of Shaman’s motivation, but I can imagine that Colleen was highly motivated: each time he barked, she would let herself outside into the 24-degree air. (I thought I caught Shaman smiling at that a few times.)
For the second stage of the afternoon training,” Colleen worked with us to clicker-train Shaman to go to his doggy bed, “lie down” and “stay” following a door knock. Suffice it to say, Shaman did better than we did.
A native of Los Angeles, Colleen had been a pre-school teacher in Seattle when she switched careers, earning a certificate in dog training. The catalyst was an 8-year-old dachshund named Maddy whom Colleen rescued from a bad situation. “Her owner died and the surviving human stuck Maddy and another dachshund in a shed with a gigantic bag of Kibbles.” When the dogs were discovered, the other dog was “really fat,” and Maddy was “really skinny.” Maddy had never even been house-trained.
In Ashland, Colleen teaches classes as well as training dogs in their homes. And while she doesn’t advertise it, she has trained a child or two along the way.
“I was working outside with this family’s two dogs, and their hyperactive child kept climbing up the rock retaining wall, and they kept having to tell him to come down.” Getting a bag of M&Ms from the parents, and using the same techniques, she quickly had him trained to stay on the grass.
“Kids are like dogs,” said Colleen. “They have that same raw energy. In pre-school and kindergarten, you’ll see the same pack mentality and mischievousness. The same learning theory applies.”
To hone her dog training skills, Colleen heads for “fowl territory,” for a week-long “chicken camp” founded by a woman who studied under B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning.
Chickens are the perfect practice subjects, says Colleen. Not only do their quick movements require trainers to perfect their click-reward timing, but compared to dogs or husbands, they are remarkably quick learners. “In just seconds or minutes, chickens can learn a behavior that would take a dog minutes or hours.” If you want to see Colleen train a chicken on Youtube.com, include “Buffy the Chicken,” “training” and “piano” in your search.
After Colleen had worked for an hour and a half or so with Shaman—and with us—it was apparent that the initial training had turned out pretty well. At least in his trial runs, Shaman was barking far less than before. As for me, I don’t know what Colleen may have shared with my partner, but since then I’ve been bringing my dirty socks to the laundry room consistently. On all fours and in my teeth.
You can reach Colleen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-601-7601