Archives for September 2013

Incorporating Training into Management

We have a dog now!

After having read a bunch of books and doing some clicker training with Lydia, I’ve now been doing it with a very food-motivated, very trainable breed of dog. Wow, is it much easier. The dog is totally happy to remain focused on me for dozens of minutes at a time in order to eat tiny pieces of cheese or liver. And he’ll repeat behaviors over and over again. The feedback loop for my own learning is much tighter, though I’m also in a pretty forgiving situation with the dog.

Lydia, primate that she has, has been pretty inclined to imitate both me and the dog during the sessions, but it’s impossible to directly motivate in the way that I do with the dog.

But anyway, those are just some scattered thoughts. What I actually want to write about is training, management, and how and whether to combine them, though my thoughts there are somewhat rambling, still, too.

With the dog, it’s easy to do a dedicated training session that’s pretty long where he can learn useful like skills. The first few days, before he was reliably looking at me when I said his name, coming when I called, going up and down stairs on his own, heading for the lawn when he had to pee or poop, or playing with his toys over other household objects most of the time were difficult. I invested a bunch of time into training each behavior listed above. 

But I also needed to take care of him as I was training him. Good training (of the style that I’ve subscribed to) involves not using cues when they aren’t well-established and not repeating them when the subject doesn’t comply. Fair enough. So I try not to abuse the cues I want to be most reliable, but if Argus is wandering into the living room, possibly to start peeing, when I’m in the kitchen feeding Lydia, it seems like the right call to call him twice if he doesn’t come when I do it once. 

I like the philosophy of shaping and capturing behavior without using lures and prompts. Lots of trainers claim to have anecdotal evidence that it teaches the animal to think for itself more. This makes sense to me. 

But in time-sensitive real-life situations, I find myself using lures and prompts quite a bit. Management can be done mostly with things the animal likes (luring him away from fragile or dangerous stuff with food), mostly with things the animal doesn’t like (yelling at him when he does things I don’t like), or by keeping him physically restrained. Most modern positive dog training books recommend using the crate quite often. I’m not willing to do that. It seems aesthetically wrong, and my intuitions advise against. 

Many people don’t want to take time to do dedicated training with their dogs. They would much rather incorporate training into everyday life. I am willing to do dedicated training, but I want my management techniques to be useful teaching tools as well. And in situations that don’t involve the dog, (Lydia yes, but also everyone I interact with), I want to be teaching in more informal situations.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do it:

  1. Always be on the lookout for behavior I like and be prepared to reward it. That’s the biggest one, and it’s classic advice, but it’s hard to do consistently. Do I usually notice when Argus looks over and decides not to chase Lydia while she’s waving the towel around?
  2. Say the cue you’re trying to teach just as the subject is about to do the thing you’d like. Say “down” when I see Argus lying down on his own. Say “come here!” when I see Lydia coming towards me. With adult humans, this exact thing could get obnoxious, but building compliance by asking for things in situations where people are inclined to agree works. (This can be nefarious, of course, but I have in mind things like asking a roommate to help unload the dishwasher when he’s hanging out in the kitchen anyway.)
  3. If you see behavior you don’t like, be willing to use prompts and lures, but try to transition away from them. When the dog has something that I do need back, I will say give it first, but if he doesn’t do it willingly I’ll put a treat by his nose. Maybe he’s not thinking for himself as much, but he’s catching on. (We do dedicated training of this one also, which I’m sure helps.) If I call Lydia and she doesn’t come over right away, I’m totally willing to do something to attract her attention. I just ordered a clean/dirty sign for the dishwasher for our house. That’s a visual prompt I’m fine using permanently though.
  4. Keep mental notes of things you have to keep managing, and figure something out. One advantage to delaying dedicated training is that lots of issues just go away. Lydia doesn’t chew power cords anymore. I’m not really sure why. The dog seems to slowly be getting over stealing diapers in favor of other activities. But, I can tell it’s going to be useful to have a rock-solid leave it, since he’s still learning what he can and can’t have. We decided to work on clicker training Lydia to relax in the car seat when we realized it might be years before she grew out of hating it.

The Life of William Ryan from 2008 to 2013

I wrote a very long email about the events of my life during the past 5 years, and sent it to more or less everyone I knew. This will serve as a great introduction to who I am circa September 2013, and I want to refer new people back to it frequently, so I am posting it publicly here on my blog. Enjoy!

Dear friends, family, and associates,

I admit that I have not been the best at keeping in touch with you over the past several years. Some of you I have not spoken to since graduation! Many of you I have only met subsequently, and may not know the earlier parts of my history. Events have been happening in very rapid succession, and I keep thinking I will hold off on sending an update until I get over the next hump… which usually leaves me waiting perpetually for a time that never quite arrives. This email is my attempt at correcting this trend. Due to the ground I need to cover, it will be quite a long email, and I will try to be as brief as possible while hitting the critical details.

I realize that many people do not like to read long emails, so in true internet tradition I will include a “too long; didn’t read” summary now. If you want to know more details of my life, skip the spoilers in the next paragraph and then read on – I think you will enjoy the story. :)

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Anki Cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog

I made some Anki cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog to help me better internalize the material. This deck isn’t intended to be a general overview of the most important concepts–just stuff that seemed important and I didn’t think I already fully understood. Your mileage may vary, but here it is!

Don’t Shoot the Dog.apkg

(Positive and Negative) Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement

I just reread Don’t Shoot the Dog, which I recommend extremely highly. Here’s a good summary, but actually just read the whole thing because it’s worth it. There isn’t a kindle version, but if you google for a pdf that will work.

Anyway, I read Don’t Shoot the Dog a while back, then more recently I’ve been reading tons of stuff about modern dog training since we’re getting a dog this coming weekend (!!!). The stuff I’d been reading recently talked about the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.

In that context, positive means adding something and negative means taking something away. So, kicking a dog when it did something you didn’t like would be positive punishment. Walking away when the dog did something you didn’t like would be negative punishment. Giving the dog a treat for doing something you liked would be positive reinforcement. Pinching a dog’s ear until it did what you wanted would be negative reinforcement.

And then there’s extinction, which is stopping responding to something that previously worked. That can work too, if the behavior isn’t self-reinforcing. Parents use this when they leave babies to cry themselves to sleep. The baby is crying to attract the parents, so eventually the baby stops crying.

An important message from Don’t Shoot the Dog is that punishment does not reliably work, whether it’s negative or positive punishment. 

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Updated Anki Decks

I used to have a bunch of Anki decks up on the internet, until Posterous stopped hosting the files. I’ve gotten some requests for them to be reuploaded, so here they are!

(Sadly, they’re not updated. I want to cull unnecessary cards because some of these decks are huge and make it so the clozes are done in the Anki 2.0 style, but that would take more time than I had today.)

How to Listen Effectively

I recently had a conversation with a friend about listening that seemed worth writing up.

There are a bunch of things we humans like to do when other people are talking to us. Thinking up what we’re going to say in response is a big one, crunching social rules that we’re afraid of breaking can happen too. Trying to fit what the person is saying into our existing worldview, wondering what we’re going to have for dinner, having a reaction to something it reminded us of…

There’s nothing wrong per se about doing all that stuff, but it is distracting. Sometimes, this doesn’t matter much. Human conversations are often pretty compressible, and it often works out fine to make full use of our autocomplete and use our spare thought cycles elsewhere.

But there’s something else that we can do that involves actually listening to people, and it’s really useful to have that one in your toolkit.

I didn’t used to be able to do it much, at least not on command. People had to be saying something particularly interesting and novel to me to get my full attention, and even then I might not be able to stick with what they were saying.

I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s entirely possible for most people to develop the capacity easily.

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Relationship Tests and How to Respond

I want to try to point at and describe a particular phenomenon I’ve often seen in relationships: testing. While I’m more familiar with the ways women test men, and I would never claim the testing is on average totally symmetrical, certainly men test women as well. This post will be about the ways that most women seem to test most men.

By my standards, I’d say that a “communication” strategy qualifies as a test if the tester is exerting any optimization power in the direction of confusing her partner. Asking for one thing with words and a separate thing with body language and context is a very broad description of how testing often works.

Taking the request at face value and granting it may be a quite unsatisfactory response.

A classic test that the PUA community likes to talk about is one where a girl will ask a guy to hold her purse, but in fact respect him a bit less if he complies. An example that sees very central to me is that a woman will hit on, by accident, an emotion of hers that seems to throw her boyfriend off-balance, and then keep serving it up to him, basically looking to get a different, less reactive response.

Perhaps testing is the wrong word. These tests are usually at best semi-conscious. But I’m sticking with the word because it feels descriptive, it lands with me, and it’s landed with other woman that I’ve talked to. Empathy and introspection will reveal that no resolution that precludes the guy learning a new skill feels satisfying.

I spent some time this past week trying to pin down a particular dance move one guy I was talking to was missing. I tried unsuccessfully for a while to describe non-reactive compassion, but I’ll take a stab at it here too.

When we humans are suffering, typically there’s some tangle of meta-emotions. Single emotions are negative affect, but they rarely last long on their own. But add some shame into the mix and they become much harder to sort out. If I were overstating my claim a bit, I’d say that all extended triggers involve shame of some sort.

Luckily, this diagnosis suggests a solution. As a listener, if we can manage to communicate that we are as close as possible to fully aware of what’s going on with the other person AND we’re okay with it, it goes a long way. Curiosity, openness, reflecting back emotions and needs verbally and, more importantly, nonverbally, will show the awareness.

A calm, somewhat compassionate, perhaps even affectionately amused face will communicate that we’re okay with it. And building the muscle of being okay with ever more and weirder twisted human social/emotional strategies is one of the easiest ways to better the lives of those around us.

Note: If the suggestion that you’re testing your partner lands at all with you, I highly recommend acceptance and conscious strategy. For me at least, testing seems to be a pretty fundamental drive, for better or for worse. I can tell an ev-psych story that makes me okay with it an a naturalistic way, and once I’ve stopped feeling shame about it (see above), I can usually make sure the channel the drive in useful ways. Tests he can pass are fine. If he repeatedly doesn’t pass, I need to either make it easier and gradually ramp up the intensity to build the skill, or coach him somehow. Coaching in the moment or at different time are both workable.