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.
22 thoughts on “Manners Minder and Me”
This a great analysis. I was involved in a competition for dogs to learn 10 unique behaviors and demonstration that the behaviors were on cue (never the wrong behavior for a cue and always the correct one in any order). It was cool! But one of the competitors had only trained her dog ONE behavior–target her hand. She lured the dog with her hand over several obstacles (10). She won. Sometimes, we don’t analyze what the dog actually knows.
So interesting that you created your own “experiment” to test out this gadget. Love the photos of Ally in action and always appreciate your sense of humor and soap box. Thanks for keeping it real for all of us with your thoughtful delving into what the literature says and what it may really mean…
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Hi – firstly, I’m really glad I came across your blog! Really enjoying it. As regards the Manners Minder, I share your concerns. But I love it! What I use it for is my reactive dog in the back of the van. Cover his crate and he overheats. See another dog on the pavement and he goes crazy – with me unable to do anything from the driver’s seat. Or he did! Enter the Manners Minder in his (admittedly large) crate. I see a dog, click the remote, he looks at the MM instead of the dog. He shows no sign of conflict – he is learning that a dog on the pavement predicts a treat from the MM, which is great. Caveat: of course one needs a helper as you shouldn’t drive and operate the remote (ahem).
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Excellent example, Zoe. (And an approach to managing dogs who are reactive in the car that I am definitely going to recommend). Thanks so much for reading and for the helpful comment! Linda
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Hi Linda, great post!! I too, know that look!! I have both the TnT and a Pet Tutor and Oh, yes, the dogs are certainly keen on the machine!! I haven’t tried this as I don’t have a designated space to train in but I have an idea although it might set your training back a bit. I recently saw a post were someone made a false wall with pvc pipe tubes going into holes in the false wall (this was a set up for a scent dog) and the correct scent hole had a Pet Tutor (hidden behind the wall) set to dispense treats when the dog was correct. I’m sure the idea could be adapted. I’ve used my TnT without the feed cup and a large funnel with a bit of flexible tubing attached to get treats to a dog in a crate.
I think if the TnT wasn’t visible from the beginning because it was hidden somehow a dog wouldn’t obsess over it. This might take some work but since it is your training room it shouldn’t be difficult to do. I know that the dogs will know the machine is there as they can smell it but if the machine is always there but doesn’t always dispense it might help with the obsession.
Also, you can use the machine empty so you can desensitize the sounds the machine makes.
If you do try this idea I hope you write about it!!
I think I have the answer! Please get two more pups(nieces/nephews for me), then try the different methods on them! Great article Sis!
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Thanks Lissa! (Two more…..bringing us to six! Can you see the pool parties? 🙂 ). Hugs to your pups (and to you!). See you soon!
Before I start I must confess: I really love the Treat and Train. I have encountered the same issues with the “obsessive” staring at the dispenser. I didn’t find it a huge obstacle and got rid of this very quickly (about two sessions) by using it manually at first and making sure I never reinforced a down-stay or any other behaviour while the dog was staring at the dispenser. I got rid of pawing and biting in the same way. I also introduced a relaxed down-stay with the head on the ground. Immediately after receiving reinforcement, the head goes down so it’s differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour: if your head is on the bed or even resting on the T & T like a pillow, you can’t be staring at the dispenser. This position also encouraged relaxation because the actual position is a more relaxed posture. Worked very well. Getting rid of the T & T was also one of my concerns. It needn’t have been. I was able to get rid of the T&T painlessly by reducing the reinforcement and finally just leaving it off (going for duration) before removing it. I thought I would have to move it gradually away but if I gave one reinforcement for staying whilst I took it away, the dog still stayed without the T & T. Another sneaky trick for dogs who stare at the dispenser is to call them to you (they won’t want to leave it at first) but you start close and soon make it clear that coming to you gets reinforced, so you sort of break the obsession that only the T & T is the giver of reinforcement. Good way of checking to see if you think you’re training what you thought you were or if the dog is just mesmerised by the T&T and can’t tear himself away do anything else. With respect to “dependancy on the device”, one bonus of the T & T became evident with a dog suffering from separation anxiety who was crated: No signs of separation anxiety when left with T & T on. As you said, it sometimes jammed but when it did, still no sep anx. (choosing kibble size and shape and texture helps prevent this markedly along with cleaning any kibble dust/droppings regularly from the machine) I never would have expected that. So I tested and just left it off in the crate: still no sep anx! It seems it had become part of the environmental cues that were positive and prevented sep anx – even with no reinforcement. Isn’t it funny – the disadvantages actually became advantageous in this instance? Certainly took me by surprise. Keep us posted with how you go.
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Hi Sonya – Love this!! Thank you!!! I am going to go back to manual +R with the device to see if I can shift Ally’s focus away from it. I had gone almost completely to the programmed mode, mainly for my own convenience while working with another dog, but your experience suggests it will be well worth retraining this with her. I also like your idea to “call to you” as a check against obsessing on the machine. And – pretty amazing that the presence of the T&T alone became the safety cue for a dog with Sep. Anxiety – very cool, indeed! Thanks for posting – great information! Linda
I only just saw your reply Linda. So…..how did you go with helping Ally and her T & T obsession?
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Hi Sonya – No Problem at all – Good to hear back from you! I loved your suggestions and switched to manual reinforcement for quite a while with Ally. It was a bit of a pain, but the up side was that it allowed me (if a bit clumsily) to increase the rate of +R to her whenever I was doing something with Cooper or Chippy that she really, really wanted to do. That part worked great. I also did start to simply put her in the x-pen if I thought she would fail too often (come off of the table) when I was training something with the other dog that she really loved. This gave me a break from trying to train and pay attention to manually reinforcing her via the T&T and prevented her from making too many errors. She has gotten much, much more proficient at lying on her pause table and watching the other dog being trained, with the T&T next to her, usually with a pretty thin reinforcement schedule (depending on what I am doing). Most recently I have taken it away, usually only when I am doing something that I know is not of great interest to her. LIke you, I was really surprised that removing it did not have much of an effect – she does seem to understand that the behavior that I want is staying on the pause table rather than simply staying near the T&T. Last, I also +R her looking at me (and away from the machine) and felt that this worked beautifully – loved that suggestion!! Thanks again and happy training!! Linda
Yay! Isn’t training and problem solving so much fun? I am so, so glad that the Treat and Train has redeemed itself somewhat 😉 Um, as an aside, I do not received notifications of follow up comments to blogs (I made a special trip back here to see how you were going). I checked “notify me of new comments via email” but do not receive any notification. Should I check “notify me of new posts via email instead”? Any suggestions?
I love your articles as, having trained as a scientist, I need to understand and apply the science to my dog training. Thank you. I have no experience with the device, but I wondered if it can be set as an intermediate step to make the “cue” noise but not dispense a treat? Then you could provide C and T instead and it might work to transfer the “value” to you?
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Hi Carol – Thanks for your comment; I am glad that you like The Science Dog! To answer your question, there is not a way to beep and not deliver food (although the opposite is possible – to not use a CR). While I can understand your reasoning, I think the timing for this would be tough. What I can do and have started is to use a longer interval for the devise and increase the +R coming from me, eventually removing the device altogether. Thanks! Linda
This is really interesting, but more than a little disturbing because I have seen “that look” of obsessed, food driven focus from dogs that are being trained by food rewards from the trainer’s hand. The dogs watch the hand and the pellet pouch like hawks, no eye contact with the trainer at all, not even looking at the trainer’s face. I am sure that you could swap the trainer for a mobile version of this dog training robot and the dog would not even notice.
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Hi Peter – Your point is a good one. Certainly, the way that we +R dogs and play/interact with our can lead to obsession on any number of things. At my training school, we have seen dogs who obsess on tennis balls because that is the single way that the owner exercises the dog, other dogs who obsess on tug-toys from agility training, and certainly, dogs who are obsessive about food (I live with Goldens, after all….. 🙂 ). So, really, this device is probably just another example of a good tool that can be used carefully or carelessly, with differing results. Thanks for reading and for the comment! Linda
I use the Pet Tutor and when I saw my dog started to stare at it, I started to R+ him looking at me or elsewhere. Also I have mounted the device above his head and again R+ when he is looking elsewhere. I used it to train going into an expend and was surprised how great the response remained after I removed the device.
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Hi Dawn – Thanks so much for this. I am happy to hear from a trainer who removed the device and saw a continuing response! I also love the idea of +R looking away. I am not sure that I completely compete with the device when I do this with Ally, but my current approach is to first get to a thin +R schedule with the devise and increase the +R coming from me, and to then remove the device (intermittently and gradually) and see what we get. Thanks for sharing your experience! Linda
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I just want to let you know how much I appreciate your blog. Science-based info relating to all things dog are few and far and your rational, calm, unbiased approach to so many issues is a huge breath of fresh air for those of us who want facts and research and not just random opinions.
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Hi Kathleen – Thanks so much for your kind words. I am so glad that you enjoy The Science Dog and find it helpful! (If you ever have a topic that you think would be interesting for the blog, feel welcome to make suggestions. My primary criterion is that it must be a topic that has been recently researched and has published papers in the scientific literature). Thanks for reading and for your note! Linda