In the previous essay, “Doggie See, Doggie Do?” I discussed research showing that dogs may be capable of learning new tasks simply by observing another dog being trained. I mentioned that when I work with my own dogs, I rotate among them by training each dog to perform a down/stay on the pause tables located on the side of our training floor.
In our family, Chippy and Cooper are the most recent in a long line of Case dogs who have learned to “wait their turn” on their platform bed. Admittedly, this is not an easy behavior to teach seeing that my dogs love to train and ultimately view their time on the platform as the “down-stays of doom“.
The approach to training this is pretty simple. I first teach a solid down-stay on the platform with no distractions, and then shape time and distance separately using click/treat. Getting a solid down/stay on the platform is the easy part……the difficulty lies in getting that stay to hold while another dog is out on the floor, having all of the fun. Until recently, I accomplished this by returning to the platform frequently with a click/treat for staying, gradually lengthening the time interval between +R. If the dog frequently jumped off of the platform, I would lower my criteria or put the dog in the x-pen and return to the task at another time.
Enter Alice (aka Alice Bo-Balice), our newest family member.
With Ally, I decided to change things up a bit and use a remote training device for this task. There are several commercial versions of these available, and I used a “Manners Minder” (now called “Treat & Train”). This device was initially created by the late Dr. Sophia Yin and it functions by providing remote +R in the form of small dry or semi-moist treats. Delivery can be controlled either manually with a handheld control or via an automatic and adjustable reinforcement program. A tone precedes treat delivery and is used as a conditioned reinforcer.
The Questions: I know that I can teach this behavior to Ally using the same +R approach that I have used in the past with our other dogs. However, I wondered whether training a down/stay on a platform might be more efficient using a remote trainer. As I see it, there could be both benefits and potential disadvantages to these devices:
- The remote trainer is a large and physically obvious cue that can be paired with the target area (bed) and which becomes a conditioned reinforcer (i.e. its presence consistently predicts the arrival of a primary reinforcer in the form of treats). This is an advantage in that it quickly signaled to Ally that the bed was “the place to be” whenever the Manners Minder was placed there.
- Provides +R remotely that is associated with a particular target (bed) and is disassociated from the trainer (me). [Note: I consider this property both an advantage and a disadvantage – see below].
- Use of a very precise intermittent reinforcement schedule (I used variable intervals, called the “down stay” setting with the device, but there are several available settings)
- Dependency on the presence of the device: I suspect that Ally’s down/stay may, at least initially, break down when I attempt to remove the device and +R her down/stay in its absence.
- Device malfunction (this happens relatively frequently, when treats get stuck in the mechanism), leading to poor timing and frustration for the dog.
- Provides +R that is disassociated from the trainer: One of the best things about training dogs, in my view, is that it enhances communication with our dogs and strengthens the bonds that we have with them. Removing the trainer (me) from this equation therefore removes a number of opportunities for positive interaction and bond-building with Ally.
What does the Science say? To date, there are two published studies of the effectiveness of remote training devices for teaching targeted down/stays with dogs. The first of these was conducted by Dr. Sophia Yin and published in 2008 and the second, using a similar device, was conducted by a group of researchers from Budapest, Hungary in 2016 (1,2). Let’s see what they have reported:
Study 1: This study was conducted in two phases, each using dogs who had a history of problem behaviors at the door (rushing, barking). In the first phase, six dogs were trained by an experienced dog trainer in a laboratory setting to move to a platform bed and offer a down/stay using the Manners Minder. In the second phase, the same training protocol was used with a group of 15 dogs who were trained in their homes by their owner. A control group of 6 dogs received no training at all. Results: All six dogs who were trained in the laboratory setting successfully learned to maintain a down/stay on a bed for a period of 1 minute, when trained using the remote trainer. In phase 2, although the average amount of training time was longer, all of the owners successfully trained their dogs to complete a down/stay on a targeted bed when visitors came to the door and also reported significant decreases in problem behaviors associated with greeting at the door. (Note: The study protocol did not include removing the device from the targeted bed).
Study 2: The researchers in this study asked whether dissociating the trainer from the +R by using a remote delivery device would influence dogs’ responses to a known command. The study design manipulated how +R was delivered to dogs while owners asked their dogs to “sit” and to “down”. One group of owners directly reinforced their dog with a food treat while the second group reinforced using a remote delivery device that was located next to the dog. After the practice session, the dog’s response to the owner’s commands was measured with the owner either standing next to the dog, 10 feet away, or hidden behind a screen. Results: All of the dog responded well to both types of positive reinforcement. Performance rate during the test phase (no +R given) was similar for the two groups when the handler was standing close. However, when the owner moved away or was out of sight, dogs who had been reinforced with the remote device performed better than dogs who had been reinforced directly by their owner. Performance declined in both groups, but it declined less in the group that had been reinforced with the device. An important note is that while the handler moved away from the dogs, the device did not. Rather, it remained where it had been during training, immediately next to the dog. (This is equivalent to the device remaining on the bed or platform in targeted training). Therefore, a significant difference between the two groups was that the “opportunity for reinforcement” as represented by the device itself was still very much in evidence to dogs who had been previously trained with it, but the handler was not. (One is left to wonder again, what would be the results if the device had been moved as well?).
Ally’s Training: So, here is where we are with our little gal’s training. Ally has rapidly learned to offer a down/stay on her pause table when the Manners Minder is present. She can maintain a down/stay for 10 minutes or more when I am training another dog, using a relatively “thin” intermittent and variable interval +R schedule programmed on the device (30 seconds or more). The caveat is that she is successful with this provided the training that I am doing with the other dog is not something that is highly motivating to her, such as retrieving or Nosework. Conversely, when training those activities with Cooper or Chippy, I reduce the schedule to ~ 10 seconds and she can (usually) maintain her stay. Since Ally is just 10 months old, is a very high energy field Golden, and literally lives to retrieve, I consider this to be a great success and would say that at this level, I am very pleased with her progress and with the Manners Minder approach.
Next Steps: My goal with Ally is the same as with my other dogs – to have a reliable down/stay on the pause table while she is not currently being trained. Because I interchange dogs often during training sessions, I would like to remove the device altogether and have a solid stay that is “Manners Minder-Free“. To accomplish this, I must shift Ally’s focus for her +R away from the device and back to me (the source of click/treat). I am gradually reducing the frequency of +R from the device by increasing its interval, and then stepping in to +R in the breaks.
The results of the 2016 study predict that Ally may have some reduction in response when I move further away from her. However, it also predicts that keeping the device present will mitigate those mistakes. Therefore the big question continues to be one that the research has not yet addressed: “What will happen if/when I remove the device itself?”
Bye-Bye Manners Minder: Some trainers who use these devices solve this issue by not having it in the first place – they don’t remove the device. They keep it on the dog’s bed or other targeted area and simply modify the intermittent schedule of +R that it delivers. Okay, well, call me a purist, but I would like to teach Ally to offer a solid down/stay without an enormous cue sitting there like a new-age, belching, vending machine. Maybe I want my cake and to eat it too….but, like her brothers, I would like Ally to have the opportunity to watch training and get some of those demonstrated observational learning benefits that we recently learned about.
And, here it comes……there is something else that has been niggling at me about this device………
Is it a down/stay or is it an obsession? I have noticed a clear difference between training Ally to stay using the Manners Minder and my experiences training my other dogs using a more traditional click/treat approach. First, before Device Lovers out there start sputtering and spamming, I totally get that this device works. It actually works almost too well. Ally is less than a year old and I have a steady, if rather frenetic, platform stay with her. However, I have to question whether this stay reflects Ally having an understanding of “I maintain a down/stay on my table until it is my turn to train” versus a more insidious reflection of; “I am obsessed with this little machine that occasionally and somewhat unpredictably burps out a treat at me“.
There are definitely signs of the latter. When Ally sees the device, she gets excited and immediately books it for the pause table. When it beeps, she fixates on the tray with an intensity that borders on that of, well, an addict (hello dopamine). The tiny little treat arrives and she is back at it, staring, staring, hoping to hear that next beep.
We all know that look.
In addition to these signs of device obsession, Ally also shows varying degrees of frustration. She becomes conflicted between staring at the device (a look I am starting to loathe) and watching one of her brothers engage in something fun on the training floor. Certainly, my dogs all show some frustration (barking, excitement) when they observe another dog retrieving or finding a scent at Nosework. But this is different in some crucial way because Ally rapidly and frantically vacillates between staring at the device and trying to keep up with what is going on around her.
Bottom Line: My opinion and these experiences are not meant to disparage the use of remote food dispensing devices in dog training. I value the rapid response that Ally has shown to using the Manners Minder to train her pause table stay. However, I do worry about the obsessive nature of her response and I question how things will go when we begin to remove the dispenser from the table. I also wonder if what appears to be a down/stay when we describe it using observable behaviors may in actuality be something else – an obsession with a technology and the absence of learning. Whether this intense focus is something that I can segue into a device-free down/stay that is reinforced and maintained with click/treat with Ally remains to be seen. It also remains to be studied or reported in the research, something that I hope will be remedied in the near future!
Happy training and stay tuned!
- Yin S, Fernandez EJ, Pagan S, Richardson SL, Snyder G. Efficacy of a remote-controlled, positive-reinforcement, dog-training system for modifying problem behaviors exhibited when people arrive at the door. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2008; 113:123-138.
- Gerencser L, Kosztolanyi A, Delanoeije J, Mikosii A. The effect of reward-handler dissociation on dogs’ obedience performance in different conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:103-110.