Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Marker

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

The single most important piece of advice I give in dog training is this: reward what you want. We have a tendency to pay attention to behaviors we don't like (No, Spot! Stop barking! No, Spot! Stop jumping!), and when the dog is behaving the way we want, we have a tendency to ignore it. It's a huge and common mistake. The dog gets feedback that undesired behavior gets attention and calm behavior is pointless and boring. That's exactly the wrong message!

After helping lots of handlers and dogs in group classes communicate better with their dogs, I have a second piece of advice to add to the first: When you're rewarding what you want, make sure you mark it first. Marking the desired behavior helps your dog connect his action to the reward more easily. It's a way of helping your dog figure things out.

A marker is a unique sound that you make at exactly the moment the dog has done something right, and you always follow it up with a reward (e.g., a treat, a toy, a game, etc.). That sound could be a clicker, which is the heart of clicker training, or it can be a unique sound you make verbally, like a happy "yes!"

Getting a dog to hand you the ball when he retrieves is often the hardest part
of training fetch. A marker at the moment he releases it into your hand can
help him understand how to get the reward of another throw.
Why do I need a marker? If I'm teaching my dog to sit, and he sits, and then I give him a treat, it's not easy for him to connect the treat to the key action (butt on the ground) that I want. There are a million other things going on in his world, so what made the treat happen? Was it making eye contact with me? Was it being in front of me? Was it the hum of the refrigerator? Was it the tile floor? Was it the fact that I reached into my treat bag? My facial expression? The way my hand is on my hip? The fact that he danced his paws a little in anticipation?

By marking the moment of success with a unique sound, you make it a lot easier for the dog to figure out that his butt hitting the ground is what made the reward happen, since you mark at the moment of success each time. So a dog who has been marked at the moment of success and the rewarded five times in a row is a lot more likely to "get it" than a dog who is just rewarded those five times with no marker first.

When you're learning to mark your dog's behavior before rewarding, the clicker has the advantage of being a unique, precise sound. We babble at dogs all the time, so the "yes!" isn't quite as clear as the clicker. However, the "yes!" has the advantage of freeing up your hands. I'll use one or the other, depending on the situation. I like the clicker for shaping truly precise/complex behaviors, like putting the back two paws on an agility obstacle and the front two paws on the floor. And I like the verbal marker for general training when we're out and about and I don't have a clicker handy or a hand free for one.

So as you're looking to develop truly effective communication with your dog, consider adding a marker to the mix. Decide the criteria of what you're trying to teach your dog, mark the exact moment he meets those criteria, and follow up with great rewards. This isn't an intuitive thing for us to do, so it really takes focus and attention on the handler's part to make it a consistent part of giving clear feedback to the dog. But it's absolutely the second biggest improvement most handlers can make to their communication.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Darkling Birdling

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

Another nice evening meant another opportunity to hang out in the backyard and see who stopped by.

This House Finch and his spouse are nesting in a bush by the deck, but he takes many opportunities during the day to fly up to a higher branch and sing his crazy gallimaufry of a song.

Later on, we moved down by the river again to relax, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visited on and off as the day darkened.

It was late, the sunset backlit her, and she is only a few inches long, but she spent enough time with us that I was able to get a couple of nice shots—my first ever of a hummingbird.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Orioles and Apple Trees

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

In early March, Andy and I closed on a new house. It took us almost two months of renovating and cleanup, but we're finally able to relax and enjoy our little place on the river. Our section of the river reverses with the tide, so we have a mixed habitat that supports all kinds of songbirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and raptors.

Adding to my impatience with the renovations was the rapidly progressing spring and the missed opportunities to shoot great pictures of our wildlife. So you can imagine my disappointment when I finally unpacked my long lens a couple of weeks ago, only to discover that I had broken the focus mechanism in the move. Fortunately, the repair was straightforward—if expensive—and my newly repaired and cleaned lens was returned to me late this afternoon.

Andy was at work, so I decided to take a book, a drink, and the camera down to the apple trees by the water to enjoy the cool evening. I figured I could relax in a chair and read, and if anything interesting happened, I'd snap a few pictures. It seemed a little too late in the day for good lighting, so I didn't have my hopes up.

I caught a glimpse of a Baltimore Oriole right when I sat down, but I didn't get a good picture. I chalked it up to poor luck and caught a few shots of this Tufted Titmouse, who was a bit agitated by another Titmouse a couple of branches over. They got in a bit of a scuffle over whatever it is that Titmice fight about.
A few minutes later, the oriole returned and spent a good half an hour drinking nectar from the blossoms of the apple tree.

Usually, I have to work a lot harder for a good photo, but sometimes the bird just comes to you. I literally didn't have to leave my comfy chair for these pictures.
At one point, he stopped and favored me with a quick song, but mostly he was there to eat. When he really wants to sing, he goes to the high branches of the larger trees, but he rattled off a few bars here and there during dinner.

After a while, I put my camera down and just watched him hop and sing and chide and dip his beak into the apple blossoms. My book stayed on the table, and I spent some time in the fading twilight, sipping drinks with an oriole.