Live Interview on SABC3

On Wednesday 21st January 2009, I appeared on the programme “Lunchbox” on SABC 3. Pictured here getting ready for the cameras to start rolling are myself, Dasko (the Malinois) and Dennis Tau (SABC interviewer and TV host). We were given 30 seconds to rush from the seating area across and on to the stage and sit down before the cameras started rolling. Poor Dasko (who is nearly 10 years old) couldn’t handle the rush, and as you can see is somewhat anxious about the hollow stage and props.

The programme was all about clicker training. It was a tremendous experience, made that much easier by the staff of Red Pepper Productions who were all so incredibly calm and kind.

Plascon Advertisement: “Incredible Journey”

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in animals and “what makes them tick”. In 1986 I bought a puppy, and began to get really interested in the different training methodologies. My involvement with clicker training began in 1988 when I started exploring and teaching clicker training. This in turn led to giving workshops on clicker training, both around South Africa and in Namibia. As the clicker trainers mantra is “any animal can be taught anything it is physically and mentally capable of doing”, I started working with non-traditional animals to prove how successful the method is. A friends’ pot-bellied pig got taught to back up, spin, heel, target, kneel and come when called. I then trained a chicken to discriminate between colours, to do a mini agility course, go in to a dog crate etc. I have appeared in such programmes as 50/50, Carte Blanche and Pasela, to demonstrate and explain the use of operant conditioning, and have been involved in training animals for television since 2001.

When the opportunity arose to train the cats for the Plascon advertisement, I jumped at the chance. This was the first time I’d trained cats professionally. After interviewing several Burmese, I selected two for the Plascon ad. (it is usual for a “hero” and “back up” animal to be used, just in case one becomes ill on the day). With so much to teach them, we decided to allocate certain behaviours to each cat, so that one cat need not do all the work on the day.

There are various methodologies and training technologies available today, one of which is operant condition (colloquially known as clicker training). In a nutshell, clicker training puts the animal in control, thereby greatly lowering stress levels and increasing the rate of learning. Operant conditioning was documented as far back as the early 1950s by BF Skinner, and is a well recognised science used in both behavioural training and modification.

The cats used in the Plascon advertisement were clicker trained for many weeks before the filming days to ensure that they understood what was required of them, and that the new situations they were to be faced with would not be frightening in any way. (these were show cats well used to travelling and participating in cat shows). For instance, we had to familiarise them with walking down the middle of a tarred road, to run across grass and go through a cat flap in a door. Grateful thanks are due to Lucy Wagner, who kindly offered to let us use her house as neutral ground on which to train Zara and Zhannah. The cats had to get used to having a camera within inches of their face, as well has learn to concentrate when the room is crammed full of people (cameramen, gaffers, grips, pullers, director, producer, etc.). One of the shots required the cat to run across a railway line – so after teaching the cat to jump over low obstacles and run up and down stairs (which neither cat had encountered before), we went down to the main railway station in Newtown, Johannesburg to practise. In a fairly short time, the cats were both happy to run across the railway lines to where I crouched with their cat crate. The producers were extremely accommodating and not only gained permission for us to spend time practising on the railway line and the adjoining vacant lot, but also managed to get us permission to practise in the two houses where the various shots were to be filmed.

As the trainer I was present throughout the shoot, which ran over three days. Operant conditioning requires the use of an event marker (a plastic clicker in this case) immediately followed by a reward. In film work I always choose to use a food reward, as no animal will eat if it is stressed. During the entire shoot, the cats were offered food and never once refused it, indicating that their stress levels never rose to an unacceptable level. The cats were kept on a harness and lead throughout the shoot (these were painted out in post production, leaving just a collar visible), so no harm could come to them. I was always within a short distance of them and could have recalled them at any time should they appear stressed or confused about what was required of them.

It goes without saying that an Animal Anti-Cruelty member was present throughout the entire filming process, and Roelof and I conferred regularly as to when to call a break and let the cats rest. We had a large cat cage which we carried to each set, in which the cats were placed between shoots. Here they could use the litter box, or have a drink or bite to eat. During lunch break they usually had a well earned nap!! Many people have commented to me how impressed they are with the final product, their main question being “how did the cats respond during training to being bathed?”. I have to admit that this was initially a concern for me as well, but they actually did not need training for this, as both cats are show animals and are quite used to regular bathing. In fact I was amazed at how quickly they groom themselves dry!! Certainly being wetted down on set with warm water was not stressful for them in the least. (only one cat was used during this sequence – Zara, who attends cat shows more regularly and therefore was more accustomed to being bathed). The shot of the cat being splashed by the car was of course filmed separately and put together in post production (i.e. the cat was filmed walking down the pavement and then the car was filmed splashing through a puddle sans cat – the two shots being married at a later stage). There is no way I would have agreed to have the cat that close to a moving car, even though the cat was on a harness and lead. And of course this was not requested by the film makers.

In conclusion, I believe that Frieze Films (the people involved in the directing and producing of this advertisement) should be commended on having been concerned enough to request that a trainer come in (at greater cost to themselves) to train these cats before the commercial was shot in order to ensure that the stress caused to the animals was minimal. Furthermore, the final Chroma sequence that was scheduled to be a 3 hour concluding session was cancelled by the Director, Tony Baggott (although this expensive studio had already been booked and therefore had to be paid for in full), as he felt that sufficient footage had already been obtained and he didn’t feel it necessary to subject the cats to any further filming.

The cats were a pleasure to work with, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with them and their owner, Dina Freitas. Burmese have always been one of my favourite cat breeds, and the interaction that I had with them during this time has gone a long way to reinforce this belief. They are a charming, intelligent, willing and friendly cat.

The Importance of Puppy Socialization

It would be impossible to over emphasize the importance of puppy socialization. As with any animal (humans included!), if socialization is not adequate in the formative months/years, the animal will grow up lacking confidence and self-assuredness. In dogs this can often lead to fear biting or a growly, snappy or wimpy dog. So if at all possible – get your puppy to a reputable puppy class as early as possible.

The importance of puppy training or socialization was recognized in the early 1970’s. Various veterinarians and animal behaviourists have stressed the importance of exposing young puppies to different stimuli in order to prepare them for later life. Behaviourists such as Dr Roger Mugford, Dr Peter Neville and Dr Ian Fisher have produced books and videos on the topic. And Dr Dunbar produced a video in 1987 entitled “Sirius Puppy Training”, which has been widely acclaimed throughout the world.

At the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress held in Durban in 1994, Dr Ian Dunbar made the following comments: “ill mannered (uneducated) and unsocialised pets generally have very short life expectancies …”. He suggested that veterinarians hold “Puppy Parties”, at which owners and puppies could meet and learn from one another. He goes on to state that “over 60% of puppies grow up in homes without children and are highly likely to become wary of children unless given adequate opportunity for friendly encounters at an early age. Similarly, between 4-5 months of age, puppies tend to become shy of strangers, especially men. Puppy parties provide a wonderful forum for pups to receive numerous treats from a variety of strangers”. (It should be noted that Dr Dunbar is a veterinarian living in America, and the statistics mentioned above are therefore related to his own country).

Most clubs take puppies from 8 weeks of age, provided that they have had at least one inoculation. It really depends on the nature of the puppy and its inherent characteristics as to when it is time to move the puppy on to a more demanding environment, such as a more formal obedience class. Certain breeds are more susceptible to viruses such as Parvo than other breeds. For these (which include the Rottweiler, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Dobermann, etc.) I would strongly recommend that rather than wait until the puppy is 6 months old before introducing it to the world at large for the first time, you ask your veterinarian for an extra Parvo inoculation. (I do this routinely with my own puppies, as I like to start taking them to shows and friends houses from 9 weeks onwards).

Puppy classes teach the pups basic manners and make them more acceptable living companions. They learn that other breeds of dogs exist (providing, of course, that you don’t take the pup to a so-called “specialist” breed club, which only allows one breed), which in turn helps them to cope with their first show where they are suddenly surrounded by all sorts of smells and different looking dogs. If your puppy is not destined to enter the show ring, the classes will also benefit it. And who knows – you might develop an interest in one of the working disciplines.

Most dog schools try to expose the puppies to a wide variety of situations such that they might come across in later years. For example, a visit to the veterinarian. Puppies learn to keep still whilst their ears and teeth are examined, whilst their temperatures are taken and their nails cut. They learn to walk on different surfaces and are exposed to different sounds and smells. Children and old folk are generally encouraged to participate so that the puppies get used to seeing people who walk in different ways. Umbrellas and suitcases etc. are “explained” to them. They learn to hold and carry a variety of different obstacles in preparation for later competitions. They learn about bite inhibition, and when it is acceptable to romp and play, and when it is necessary to lie quietly.

Puppy classes benefit the handler as much as the dog. I can’t tell you how many people who have said they wished they’d trained a dog before having had children! Both puppy and handler learn mutual respect. They learn to read each other’s body language and can therefore anticipate problems before they occur. As all teachers know, positive reinforcement is far, far more effective than negativity. So if you can pre-empt a problem and redirect the behaviour before it becomes unacceptable, you do away with the necessity (and in fact the desire) to punish the puppy. This in turn leads to a more harmonious environment, and a more relaxed puppy and handler. So if you want to live at ease with your family and puppy, make sure that it gets properly socialized from an early age. Believe me, you won’t regret it!!

The Clicker Litter

When we planned to breed our bitch, I was very enthusiastic about starting to train the puppies from a very early age. Having been a clicker trainer for (at that stage) past fifteen years, I firmly believe in the mantra “any animal can be taught anything it is mentally and physically capable of doing”. Clicker training is a very elegant method of teaching animals all sorts of behaviours with the use of an event marker, usually the sound of a plastic clicker. This sound is paired with something the animal likes, so that the animal (be it a bear or a mouse, a dog or a chicken) learns that when it hears the sound, something good will follow. This puts the animal in control of the learning situation – it offers and appropriate behaviour, which is marked with the click, and knows that a treat will follow. Pretty soon the animal will become very inventive, trying to work out what it is that will earn it a treat.

The reason I prefer a clicker to e.g. a sound (like the words “good dog”) is because the sound of the clicker is unique – the puppies will never hear that particular sound during the course of the day. The sound of the event marker needs to be distinct, it needs to be exactly the same every time, and quite different from normal environmental sounds.

As soon as my puppies ears opened, I started clicking whenever they woke and started feeding from their dam. So the puppies became conditioned that the sound of the click meant something they wanted was going to follow – and this before they could even walk!! So the puppies learnt that their own actions sometimes caused the clicks that lead to treats. And puppies that make this discovery have a big head start on a happy future.

As the puppies (there were seven of them) were being weaned, I started clicking as the food was placed amongst them. They had already began to startle when they heard the click sound – an indication that they understood that the click meant something good was about to arrive. A flick of the ear towards the sound, a turn of the head, and slamming on of brakes if they were going in another direction etc. are all indications that the animal has made the connection between click and treat.

Now it was time to do a little bit of one-on-one interaction. I took one puppy at a time and clicked it for sitting, looking in my eyes, staying four-feet-on-the-floor (as opposed to jumping up for attention). I used bits of minced meat, liver treats, raw chicken etc. as treats for them. I knew which puppy I would be keeping, and taught her to lift her paw (beginning of a wave). This was easy – every time she shifted her weight onto one side, I would click and treat. Pretty soon she was shifting her weight more and more obviously, until her foot came off the ground. It took about 10 clicks, and my puppy could wave!! Amazing muscular control for a 6 week old pup. And you should have seen her face – “WOW: I just made this huge human give me food just by lifting my little paw!!”

Now that each of the puppies could sit, I worked them all together. I’d take them for a walk together at the back of the property (we live on a 2 acre stand so there’s plenty of space). When I stopped walking, seven little bottoms would hit the ground. The ones that sat the fastest got a click and treat. In a very short space of time it became a race to see who could catch me out – before I actually halted, little puppies would be sitting solidly in my path demanding a click and treat!! What a pleasure. And of course my little bitch puppy would add in a wave in for good measure …..

It is important that the animal is not coaxed or lured into the required position. Let them work it out for themselves – it’s their action that earns a click and treat: not following a food treat until their position is changed. This teaches them a major life lesson – they learn to want to find out what people want them to do. In other words, interaction, the desire to please, to experiment, to try and try and try again to give the human what they are looking for becomes self-rewarding to the puppy. What a super relationship to have with your dog. If you assist all the time, the dog will not learn that it is its own actions that elicit the click and treat.

The other beauty of clicker training is that it’s so fast. Just a couple of clicker lessons, no more than five or so minutes each, and your pup will have learnt another cute behaviour. No need to keep going over the same thing again and again – once the dog has worked out for itself what behaviour earns a reward, it will retain that knowledge for the rest of its life. Sure, if you don’t reinforce it for some time, you might need to go back and polish it up a bit, but the dog will never forget. And those initial fun clicking session at five or six weeks of age convert a puppy from a floppy blob into an eager, observant learner.

Carrying it Further
Of course you can take this whole thing much further. Most puppies will rush to greet visitors, jumping up and yapping when they appear. If your puppies understand clicker training, you can reward the puppies that sit quietly rather than tearing clothes with sharp little puppy teeth. The puppies can be clicked and then picked up and petted.

I also enforced a strong recall (come when called) in these little puppies. I would let them all play together, and then call them (not individual names at this time, just a sound that I used to get their attention). The first ones to arrive (sitting!) at my feet earned a click and treat.

So the puppies went to their new homes with some basic manners already instilled in them. A couple of the new owners phoned to check whether their puppy was not sick – whoever heard of a pup that walked on a loose lead and sat when you stopped walking? One that didn’t jump up, but rather waved at you to get your attention?

Of course the fun that I had with the puppies was only the very beginning of the learning they needed for future life. But at least they started their lives learning how to learn, and were all very ready and eager to learn more.

How To Raise A Dog You Can Live With

Responsible dog ownership comprises three main categories: management (including nutrition and care), relationship (interaction between owner and dog) and training. These three aspects hold equal importance, and to neglect any one of them could result in health and/or behavioural problems in your pet.

There are many important facets of responsible dog ownership such as correct nutrition, regular veterinary checks, innoculations and de-worming, attention to your dog’s needs, and lots of love. In addition, teaching your dog correct and acceptable behaviour allows you and your dog to live in the same environment and enjoy each other’s company.

In order to integrate a dog into your home (which is by definition an unnatural environment for a dog), you need to modify his behaviour to comply with your life style. There are many misconceptions about what is natural dog behaviour, and what is unacceptable behaviour to humans. Make sure that you fully understand the idiosyncrasies of your chosen breed before you embark upon modifying the behaviour of your pet. Of course you cannot begin to modify behaviour until you have built a relationship with your dog, and training is the easiest way of going about cementing a good relationship.

The easiest way to modify any dog’s behaviour is with positive reinforcement. Here are some useful pointers to bear in mind when introducing a new dog into your home, and adapting it to your life style:

  • Learning takes place constantly, and not just in formal situations. So be careful to be consistent – if you do not want the dog on the sofa, then Fido should never be allowed on the sofa.
  • Always reward what you like. For instance, every time the dog sits and offers a paw instead of jumping up on your visitors, praise him.
  • Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated (this is the basis of all training)
  • Remember to vary your reward to keep it interesting. For instance, sometimes reward with food, sometimes verbally, sometimes with a pat, etc. Make sure you use something that is rewarding for the dog – in other words, just because you like biltong doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog will!
  • Try not to use negatives – rewarding behaviour that you like has far more impact than punishing your dog. If you don’t want your dog to jump up, reward him for sitting; if you don’t want your dog barking at the front door every time the bell rings, reward him for running to his basket instead. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Set your dog (and therefore yourself) up for success. In other words, don’t expect Fido to be perfect immediately.
  • Train behaviours incrementally. Reward an attempt to sit before expecting a perfect sit-stay. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Be aware that what is cute behaviour in a puppy can turn out to be quite unacceptable in a grown dog.
  • Never reward undesirable behaviour such as whining, barking, digging, etc. Even paying attention to undesirable behaviour might reinforce that behaviour in certain dogs. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Keep training sessions short. Try and turn it into a game for both you and your dog. Use lots of positive reinforcement. By doing this you will have a dog that looks forward to training sessions, clear in the knowledge that he will receive praise and enjoy the interaction with his owner.
  • Don’t allow your dog free access to all rooms in the house until you know that he is truly house-trained
  • Be careful to keep articles that you don’t want chewed out of a puppy’s reach.
  • Don’t leave an untrained dog unsupervised – it just isn’t fair to scold a dog for what is to him a natural behaviour
  • Prevent undesirable behaviour by managing the situation e.g. your dog cannot jump on you at 4 a.m. if he doesn’t have access to your bedroom. Once you have taught him that the behaviour is inappropriate in your home, then allow him into the bedroom
  • Never call a dog to scold it or to expose it to a potentially unpleasant situation (e.g. nail clipping).
  • Reward your dog every time he chooses to interact with you – whether he just looks at you, brings you a stick or a leaf, or runs up to you for attention. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated. The more your dog wants to be a part of your life, the more chance you have of moulding his behaviour to suit your lifestyle.

Above all, enjoy the time you spend with your dog. Give him all the love and attention you can, and he will reciprocate by becoming a willing, biddable companion. Never force, intimidate or physically control your pet – rather use your mind than your muscle to get him to bend to your will.

Please remember that the above are just guidelines to a better life with your dog.