Dog training and decision fatigue

Dog training and decision fatigue

We train dogs for a variety of reasons: to reduce unwanted behaviour, increase desired behaviour, for their welfare, to improve public safety and of course for pure, unadulterated fun. Owners who are training for fun without clear goals might be slow to reach them (or even -gasp- never reach them!), but this is no big deal if aversive stimuli are not in play.

Professional dog trainers, however, have a greater responsibility to train in ways that are both non-damaging to the dog and also efficient. Clients pay us to achieve outcomes. Gross inefficiencies in training can drive clients to punitive trainers who will get some kind of a job done. It is therefore wise, humane, and business-savvy to focus on efficiency. This blog, the first in a series on efficiency, deals with the important topic of decision-making.

Dog training is a profession which draws rather intensely on the brain’s resources - the trainer’s brain, that is! Trainers must navigate awkward social situations while side-stepping their client’s mythologies and bizarre internet-borne training advice. We must prioritize behavioural issues in a way that answers to the client’s needs, maintains or increases the dog’s welfare, and protects the public. We must categorize problems into a few columns on the page: train? manage? ignore? We must figure out how much of the training should be delegated to the client.

Finally, and in no small feat, we must identify a “terminal behaviour” for all training. To change a dog’s behaviour, a trainer writes a plan, which is a series of criteria steps that lead to a final, or “terminal”, behaviour. (If classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning/DRI is the appropriate technique, the “terminal” will be or include a positive emotional state.) Every trainer needs to move from early, achievable-right-now criteria steps to the more difficult - and often real-life - steps. Moving between steps takes decisions on the part of the trainer: when to make it harder, when to stay at the current level, and when a backwards step is needed.

Decision fatigue refers to “the notion that making choices can be effortful and can therefore deplete [mental] resources.”1 Some interesting research has found that our ability to make good decisions (or even just any decision) declines if we have to make a lot of choices in a short time. A rest and a snack allow for our decision-making prowess to rebound, indicating a physiological basis.

With the prioritizing, categorizing, figuring, and identifying that are standard parts of our work, our brains are already shouldering a heavy load: choices, choices, choices. By the time we start to actually work on a dog, we are at elevated risk of decision fatigue. We might push a few steps ahead when the dog isn’t ready, and feel flustered when we have to drop back multiple times. We assume our instincts serve us well, when they likely don’t - how many of our clients have motivated, drivey, herding breeds, after all? We might stay on a step for an inordinate amount of time when the dog is ready for something harder. These training errors have a cost: they’re inefficient. The job just ain’t getting done.

All is not lost, however. The best training methods have a fantastic over-ride: they simply punt decision-making to empirical rules. They automate. It’s a sub-routine, not a conscious consideration of alternatives. They make moving through a training plan a habit, freeing mental resources for other things... like chatting with your client about enrichment. Gabbing about anti-pull gear. Driving home safely.

At the Academy, our practitioners are trained to count correct and incorrect responses in a set. If the dog gets enough right - usually at least four correct responses out of a set of five - the trainer moves smoothly on to the next step. If the dog misses enough, the trainer simply drops back. And if the dog is in-between, there’s an answer for that too: another set, counted out of habit, of the same step.

Our human and canine clients deserve the speediest resolution we can offer. Automation of criteria change decisions is a boon to efficiency and can help a trainer meet, and exceed, their client’s expectations. It reduces human fatigue and by basing the choice of when to change criteria on an objective sampling of the responses in a set, it helps a training session stay fun, challenging, and engaging for the dogs, too.

Take your training to the next level. Avoid taxing decisions like “is my client’s dog proficient enough to move to the next step?” Let the dog’s performance tell you - it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

 


 

1. Vos et al. 2005. Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources - But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives. Unpublished manuscript.

Cover photo: © Monkey Business 2/Shotshop.com

Second photo: © DGLimages/istockphoto.com

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The Seductiveness of Why

The Seductiveness of Why

 

My training as an archaeologist prepared me well for my work with dogs.  Archaeologists tend to be consummate generalists. We learn some biology (How do bones grow?), some physics  (How do percussion waves through volcanic glass make razor-sharp flakes?), and some chemistry (How does radioactive decay tell us how old stuff is?).  Of course, we also learn a lot about humans, our culture, our society, and our fascinating history as primates.  

Dog trainers have to be generalists, too.  We need to know how to teach, how to counsel, and how to use modern applied behavior analysis techniques to change a dog’s behavior and emotions.  We must have a solid understanding of evolution, genetic and environmental effects on behavior, and of ethology.  

I once worked in a bone lab as an archaeologist, reducing animal carcasses to skeletal material for a comparative bone collection.  This cemented my ability to handle really gross stuff, a skill I’ve found useful with dogs who aren’t motivated by the usual fare.   

But I think the best gift I received from my archaeologist past is a tolerance of uncertainty.  (Did modern humans float from one continent to the next during the last ice age, exploiting the rich marine environment at the ice’s edge?  Who knows!  Who do we share our branch of the hominid tree with, really? Who knows!)  Some questions do get answered as time and science marches on.  Some questions, though, seem unanswerable, at least without time travel.  But here’s the thing: not knowing the answers to these questions has not stopped the archaeological juggernaut.  Sites are excavated, artifact collections are assessed and re-assessed, and archaeological papers are published.  

This comfort with uncertainty has been a great boon to my ability to help my dog training clients.  Beyond the broad strokes of motivation (Is the dog scared or upset?  Or is he feeling fine and just being a dog?), it often really doesn’t matter why.  In fact, getting stuck in a loop of asking why, why, why, is a common reason that owners and new trainers falter.  Yesterday, an owner asked me why her dog buries pieces of chewed-up hose in her rose garden, only to immediately excavate them, then re-bury.  (Is he angry at me for putting him outside? Is he communicating something?) An answer starting with “Because...” would likely delve into dogs’ fascinating position as a domesticated canid with remnant food caching software, made ‘buggy’ through generations without selection pressure.  Despite my own love of evolution, and her use of the seductive why, I knew that a long-winded explanation was not what this client was asking for.  My suspicion – soon confirmed – was that what she really wanted was simply to get the dog to stop digging in her rose garden.  We decided on a digging pit, I pointed out how cool it was to watch her dog showing off some of his wolf ancestry, and I was able to quickly move on to another issue she was having with her dog.  

A comfort with uncertainty allowed me to make the best use of my client’s time and money, which is no small deal.  But much more importantly, it opened up time in my consult to create a more enriching environment for this dog, and allowed us to tackle other behaviors which were interrupting the peace in their home.  Time spent on a discussion of what, if anything, the behavior communicated (or how the hose may have mimicked ligaments from a caribou’s leg) would have detracted from our session.  In other words, there would have been a real time and money cost to the client, and a welfare cost to her dog.   

Why is a seductive question.  Uncertainty is a frustrating state.  So I tip my hat to my archaeological studies for the comfort I now have side-stepping the why why why, accepting the uncertainty inherent in dog training (we really do not know what dogs are thinking! Really!), and allowing me to spend the most time doing what I really want to do: helping people, and helping dogs. 

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