By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
There are plenty of fun and useful applications for the Pet Tutor. One of my favorites to teach is targeting. A target is an object that your animal moves towards and touches with a body part. The reasons for teaching targeting are many.
As with all training, it is good for your dog’s brain. The more appropriate cognitive activities we give them, the happier they are. If your animal has satisfied his needs for interesting and fun mental work, then he is going to more easily settle down and relax. And happy relaxed animals make for happy relaxed owners.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp has hypothesized that animals possess what he has termed the ‘seeking system’. This system motivates us to seek out interesting and enjoyable activities of all sorts. It is part of the natural desire to avoid boredom and pursue pleasurable experiences. If we don’t provide activities that satisfy this desire to seek, then our animals are likely to take things into their own paws, hooves, claws, and so on… and we probably won’t be happy with their choices. So we would be wise to provide activities that fulfill this need. Targeting is a way to provide a number of interesting and fun options for your animal.
Once I have introduced my animal to the feeder then I like to move to targeting as a way to keep their focus off the food location and move it onto what he is doing to cause the food to be released. Becoming too focused on the feeder can lead to undesirable behaviors such as treating the feeder like a large puzzle toy or simply fixating on it and not trying new things. Instead, we want them to understand that the food comes from the feeder, but the things you do away from it are what cause it to be released.
The following videos show the first session of introducing the target and the Pet Tutor together. Some of the dogs have had experience with both separately. They are also different ages with different levels of overall training history. It’s always interesting to me to do a compare and contrast when looking at how different animals respond and learn the same task. I hope you find it interesting as well. It’s likely that at least one of these dogs may react in similar ways to yours. Remember, all dogs present their own unique training challenges.
First up is Pixel, who just turned one. He has the least experience with both the Pet Tutor and with targeting. He’s been introduced to the feeder and took to it very quickly. As a puppy, he was also introduced to hand targeting (touching the palm of my hand with his nose). In this session, he’s learning about the target stick for the first time. He’s also learning that he needs to do something (turn away from the feeder and touch the target) in order for the treats to be released. By the end of the session, he had a pretty good behavior loop going — touch target, turn back to the feeder, get cookies, turn back to target, and so on.
Next we have Tigger. Tigger is older than Pixel by several years. He is familiar with the Pet Tutor and with basic target work. He was experimenting with putting his foot into the bowl of the feeder to try and get food to come out. But pretty quickly he abandoned that tendency. If he hadn’t then I would elevate the feeder as I demonstrate here.
Zen is almost 12 years old and very experienced operant dog. He knows that what he does leads to cookies. He’s familiar with the Pet Tutor and with a huge number of variations on targeting. He is also VERY happy to offer lots of behaviors as fast as possible. This means that if I’m not careful he will throw tons of random behaviors at me. I realized very quickly that allowing the treats to drop and fall on the floor was making it too hard for him to find his cookies. One of the benefits of the bowl on the Pet Tutor is that the food is always presented in a predictable place. I also noticed in this session that Zen may also be having trouble hearing the beep and the fall of the treats.
Star is 8 years old and has had the most experience with the Pet Tutor because I used it extensively to condition her to tolerate having her nails dremeled. She has also had lots of target training. And, as you can see, she is FAST! This is a huge training challenge all on its own. Notice though how quickly she reorients back to the target after getting her cookies.
And finally, because he insisted, Trick the kitty got a turn. He’s actually had a decent amount of experience with both the Pet Tutor and with target training. He is also always hanging out whenever we train and really enjoys his sessions. One challenge working with cats is that they often eat more slowly than dogs. My dogs just gulp and swallow. Trick actually chews each piece of food. While this slows down the number of repetitions you can complete in each session it’s not a huge drawback. Learning still happens.
So, what have I learned after an initial session with each of these animals? What I saw in all of them was that the concept of turning away from the feeder and doing something to cause the release of cookies is a training process. It’s learning the concept “I do this here and cookies show up there”. Pixel and Tigger needed to narrow down their options and discover that only touching the target stick worked. Zen and Star, being more experienced learners, had that idea right from the start. Each animal presented unique challenges. This is why it is so helpful to work with a variety of animals. It definitely makes you a better trainer. There is no perfect learner. Even highly motivated and eager animals present challenges in training.
I will be continuing these sessions and show you our progress in the next blog post. If you want to train along all you need to do is choose a target object and start the process. It’s fun and a very good training challenge for you and your dog, or cat, or ferret…
Deborah Jones, Ph.D. is a retired psychology professor who now trains animals full-time. She has been training for 25+ years and focuses on positive reinforcement based methods. Deb has written 12 books on dog training and has helped develop several DVD series. She has also trained and shown multiple breeds to high-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience. She is currently teaching online training classes and webinars at www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com. Visit her website at www.k9infocus.com for more information.