Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Clicker Train Your Velociraptor

*This post may contain mild spoilers for the movie Jurassic World. But we promise it’s nothing that will ruin the movie for you.

The Internet has been full of movie clips and memes of Chris Pratt’s Jurassic World character Owen wrangling four velociraptors. If you haven’t seen any of the trailers, you can watch one here. The first 35 seconds show Owen interacting with the velociraptors.

The cool thing that you don’t see in the trailers, though, is that Owen trained these dinosaurs using clicker training. That’s really exciting! Clicker training is a positive reinforcement method of training where a desired behavior is marked and rewarded. This type of training can play a role in the bond between an animal and the trainer, creating “a relationship based on respect” as Owen says in the movie.

All of our service dogs are trained using clicker training. We start then when they’re very young. Our dogs go to puppy raisers when they’re eight weeks old, and our raisers start by clicking and treating the puppies just for making eye contact (“attention”). The pups learn that every time they hear the click, they get a yummy treat, so of course they want to repeat the behavior that caused the click.

The wonderful thing about clicker training is that it’s a very clear form of communication. The click clearly marks a behavior, so the dog knows exactly when they’re doing the right thing. The treat then rewards them for it, so the dog is much more inclined to repeat the behavior and even build on it. Using this method, we can easily train a dog to do more complex behaviors, like turning on a light switch, picking up an item, or opening a door. Because the dog is having fun and being rewarded, they often learn quickly.

Plus, the dogs love it! After a while, when our puppy raisers don their clicker and treat pouch, the dogs come running!

Watch the video of SSD Aunt Laura learning how to “heel.” Listen for the click. Revenda, her puppy raiser, clicks every time Laura moves her back legs into the correct position at Revenda’s side. Notice that with each click, Laura gets a treat.

Since this video was taken, Laura has mastered “heel” (swinging into place on her handler’s left side) and “side” (swinging into place at her handler’s right side). You can tell from the video that Laura is enjoying herself. Her tail is wagging and she’s engaged with her raiser.

Now, we know that the clicker training portrayed in Jurassic World is a far cry from what it should actually look like. But we understand that choices undoubtedly had to be made for cinematic effect.  We’re still happy to see this positive training method get a few moments on the big screen.

So we want to know. What behaviors have you taught your “velociraptor” using clicker training? 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Becoming a Service Dog Team

Today, SSD Bridge, SSD Hank, and SSD Nitro are taking their public access tests with their new partners. The other five dogs who were in team training—SSD Beaker, SSD Brickle, SSD Cove, SSD Dexter, and SSD Nola—took their public access tests last week and are now busy working.

The public access test is the evaluation that all of our service dog teams must pass in order to become official working service dog teams. We use the public access test as a way to ensure the dogs are well-behaved in public and that each person has control of their dog—both important aspects of the ADA. We have no doubt that our remaining teams—Bridge, Hank, and Nitro—will do great on their public access test!

These teams have spent the last two and a half weeks learning how to work together. They’ve practiced the basic cues that all of our service dogs know, such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “come.” The teams also worked on the individual tasks each dog was trained to perform.

Under the ADA, a service dog must perform tasks related to their partner’s disability. For example, the dog could act as a counterbalance to support someone as they walk, retrieve dropped items, pull a manual wheelchair, or apply pressure to calm their partner’s anxiety. Each of our service dogs learned several tasks based on their partner’s needs and preferences.

After our teams spent a week learning how to work together, we hit to road to practice in some real life situations.

Every team training includes a fun field trip, and this time, we went to ZooAmerica. We planned the trip for the morning, so we could be there before the pavement got too hot for the dogs. It was still a hot day, so we made sure to stop for lots of water breaks.

The zoo is a fun, but challenging trip, since there are lots of distractions for the dogs and the people. We walked through the exhibits, and Bridge, Hank, and Nitro worked on nice loose leash walking. As you can see from some of the photos, the dogs were allowed to notice the animals. After all, it’s difficult not to notice the animals, especially when most of the animals came right over to the edges of their enclosures to investigate the dogs. However, the dogs needed to still stay focused on their partners. Each person did a nice job making themselves more interesting than anything else in the environment!

It was a good, fun real world experience!

After today, Bridge, Hank, and Nitro will be working service dogs. We have already seen what a difference these three dogs, and Beaker, Brickle, Cove, Dexter, and Nola have made in their partners’ lives, and we know those bonds will only continue to grow.