Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dog training—positively

Do even a shallow level of research on dog training and you'll discover that there is an alternative to old-fashioned, punitive methods: training based on positive reinforcement that does no harm to the animal. Compulsive methods of training tell you to jerk your dog to make him walk nicely or stop lunging, for example. However, take some time to read and learn and you'll realize that there are clear benefits to using positive methods that far outweigh the use of fear, force, and intimidation. One of the best outcomes is that you won't damage the relationship between you and your pet.

My papillon Misti lives in Hawaii with my mother. I had to leave her behind when I moved to Boston nine years ago, but I'm glad that she's made a good companion for Mom. We took Misti to obedience training when she was a puppy. The methods we were taught were a mix of traditional and positive, but thankfully we never used anything as punitive as a choke collar, prong collar, or shock collar. The idea of using such items on a 5- or 6-pound toy dog like Misti is downright barbaric. After reading various publications on dog behavior and training over the years, I've come to believe that these sorts of "tools" shouldn't be used on a canine of any size.

Unfortunately, there are trainers out there who do use and advocate old school training techniques, which probably makes it difficult for people to understand or be aware of the fact that there's a different and better way of doing things. Furthermore, there are a lot of impatient dog owners out there who want a quick fix to their pets' behavior issues and decide that harsh methods will do the trick. (They're really not that effective, and they can actually exacerbate the problems.) I took a psychology class on learning and behavior in college. The course was helpful to me as an introduction to the basic principles involved in how animals operate. I wish all dog trainers were required to take such classes and be certified as behaviorists, but unfortunately I'm fairly certain that that's not the case.

In her book Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog, Pat Miller writes: "Traditional training methods have often relied on human logic to teach dogs how to behave, by punishing the dog for 'bad' behavior. But to our dogs, behavior is neither good nor bad; they are just doing what dogs do, driven by instinct and governed by the consequences of their actions." Herein lies the problem. Most people don't understand dog behavior and how they learn. They follow general concepts, such as the misguided notion that they need to dominate their dogs and act as the alpha. There's a common misconception that Pat Miller discusses in her book. The scenario goes something like this: You come home and discover that your kitchen trash can has been overturned and the contents are strewn everywhere. You are furious. Your dog, clearly the culprit in the midst of the mess, looks so darned guilty. He obviously knows he did something wrong. Why else would he look like he knows he's responsible? Well, he's afraid—not guilty. You are mad, and he is trying to appease you and escape your anger. A lot of people might decide to punish their dog on the spot. The poor dog in that case has no idea why he's being reprimanded because he rifled through the garbage earlier in the day. "Behaviorists agree," Miller writes, "that a reward or punishment must be delivered in close time-proximity, preferably one second or less, to the behavior you are trying to increase or decrease."

Clicker training is a method I've used that gives a dog a clear indication of behaviors you like and want to continue. It tells the dog specifically what you want by pairing a reward for a behavior with a "click" you make with a small device called a clicker. If the dog offers a behavior you don't want, you don't reward it and that behavior eventually disappears. It's a completely positive method that many trainers use. (Dolphin trainers employ this type of training, but they use a whistle instead of a clicker because it's easier for the animals to hear if they're underwater.) This is only a nutshell summary of the method, and there are obviously other components and aspects of positive training that I haven't gone into here. This post would take far too long for me to compose if I were to try to make it comprehensive, and many of the resources you can find do a far better job than I ever could of explaining the various ideas and techniques related to positive training.

The bottom line is that I hope any dog lovers who are reading this—and who don't know much about it—will familiarize themselves with training that's based on positive methods. There are lots of great books out there, but a couple in my collection are The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. Additionally, I maintain a subscription to The Whole Dog Journal, which is a solid resource on training and other useful information, and I'm a faithful viewer of It's Me or the Dog with trainer Victoria Stilwell. Please take the time to learn for yourself what I'm talking about. If you train smarter and not harder, you'll be happier and so will your dog.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shedding some light on cone dystrophy

The other day I met a woman who has cone dystrophy, the same eye condition I've had my entire life. The condition affects the cone cells in the retina, impacting a person's central vision, color vision, and sensitivity to bright lights. My brothers and I are the only ones in our family with cone dystrophy, and I've never met anyone else who has it. In my case, my vision is approximately 20/200 in the right eye and 20/125 in the left with glasses or contacts. I have difficulty seeing out in bright sunlight, and my color vision is somewhat compromised so that I can't distinguish various shades and hues. Here are some examples of what this means for me: I can't drive; I'm generally unable to read menus posted up high and above a cashier's head at restaurants; I often can't figure out what color something is when I'm shopping for clothes; and I'm very nearsighted to the point of having to read regular print very closely. I do, however, get around pretty well on foot without the use of any aids, and most people can't tell simply by looking at me that I'm visually impaired.

Ketra, the woman I met, was a member of the jury panel for this year's Insights, an annual exhibition of works by blind and visually impaired artists that is presented by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (the organization where I work in San Francisco). Unlike me, Ketra only began to experience diminished vision later in life. Similarly, though, we both have a full field of vision, meaning that our peripheral vision isn't hindered. It was interesting to meet someone outside of my family who knows what cone dystrophy is and to chat with her about our shared condition. The next day I did a routine Google search on cone dystrophy; I do one every once in a while to see if there's anything new. Lo and behold, there's an article out there from the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center called Understanding Cone Dystrophy that you can read via the link below, if you're at all inclined:

It clearly explains the condition, which I was so excited about that I promptly emailed the link to my family, as well as to Ketra. In our conversation, Ketra mentioned that there's next to no research being done on cone dystrophy. For the most part, it's true. After all, the article says that cone dystrophy affects about 1 in 30,000 people in the United States so it's not terribly common. But this figure, along with a document such as the one published by the University of Michigan, is something I never had while growing up and not fully understanding my eye disorder. It turns out that one of the article's authors, Dr. John Heckenlively, was the doctor who my family visited at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute when I was 4 years old. He conducted eye exams on all five of us and wrote up a report 28 years ago. So, there apparently has been some research done on our relatively obscure eye condition since then. Yes, it's been quite a long time coming, but I think it's progress nonetheless. And I'm really glad to see it.