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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dog equality in training and a mostly spring-like ride

The dogs and I rolled out into a transformed world today. The warm sun and wind has melted and sublimated our snow. Out in open meadows, only patches survived the onslaught.
The same meadow looked like an arctic tundra a week ago.
The dogs continued their obsession with something up in a dense aspen grove so I called them back to me. To his credit, R responded with a whip-around rapid recall, arriving before K even came into the camera's sight.
I showered R in treats and praise. But then, as K galloped toward me, R undertook an unprecedented move, sprinting straight at K to cut her off as she approached. When K got close enough, R launched himself at her, fully airborne for an instant.
K veered away from him, skirted his play attack, and churned toward me to receive her reward for a recall.

I always very carefully reward both dogs equally when they do the same behavior. For example, I alternately give each one a treat for at least 30 seconds when they both do a recall.

I just discovered a study (Range, F. et al., PNAS 106, p. 340-345, 2009) that showed that this 'equality' in rewards is critical in keeping dogs enthusiastic about training. In the study, dogs were placed in pairs and alternately did a handshake on cue with a human. If they both received the same treats as rewards, they both remained enthusiastic and engaged over many repeats of the handshake. However, if one dog received a reward and the other didn't, the unrewarded dog gave up on offering his paw for a handshake much sooner. In fact, with this inequality, he gave up even more rapidly than if he worked alone (with no canine partner by his side) while receiving no rewards for handshaking with the human. Thus, it seems that dogs get upset and lose motivation if their partner gets paid for the same work that they're doing for free!

Another big question in understanding dog cognition is whether they learn by imitating each other. I haven't yet done any library research on this question. However, I've seen numerous examples with my own dogs where I'm almost certain that they learned by watching and imitating each other. Indeed, during a break in today's bike ride, I asked K to put her paws on a fallen tree trunk. It's a trick that she's done a million times, and she happily complied. You can't see her paws in the photo but her shoulders were so high because her paws rested on the trunk.
As I fed her treats, R stared and cocked his head as if he was analyzing the situation. I'd never trained him to do this trick. Then, to my utter surprise, he placed his paws on the same trunk, but from the other side. I showered him in treats and praise. I love seeing dogs thinking and taking initiative. This case seemed obvious to me - R wanted to get treats and imitated K's behavior because I was feeding her treats! Very cool!
After a romping good time on the trails with the dogs, I rolled out for a solo trail ride, sticking with my snow bike because I thought that north-facing slopes would still harbor deep snow. For much of the ride, it seemed a ridiculous choice of bike. Even on a heavily forested trail, the snow had melted in our spring-like weather.

A bobcat had boldly marked a trail as his own. Snow carpeted this trail yesterday morning so he must have marked the trail last night. His markings and tracks appear on this trail about every other day throughout the year. The photo shows his scratched out depression, the loose duff thrown in a pile, and his scat deposited near it.
I'm eager to try to get a bobcat photo using my infrared wildlife camera. The new camera is set up outside our house because I want to test it nearby before placing it in the forest. Alas, for the first time since last May, we've gone quite a while with no animal visitors to test it. I'm still waiting! I'm learning that this wildlife camera hobby requires great patience.

I rolled on after checking out the bobcat marking, planning to ride a snowy gulch, but finding that the hunters had compacted the snow down to glistening ice with their 4wd vehicles. So, I changed my plan and climbed a ridge that looked dry despite our recent huge snow storm. Although the towering giants in the distance wore snowy coats, the ground under my tires was dry and brown.
I rumbled along the ridge's spine on my snowbike, still feeling that it was a ridiculous bike choice for the day. In the photo below, my trail was dry, and I was about to ascend the toughest climb of the day. It followed the edge of the forest on rocky and technical terrain, peaking just above the snowy area. It's a climb that I can ride (rather than walk) if I focus every nerve and muscle on the task. Today, I managed it, despite the rough and tumble snowbike that I piloted! The photo doesn't give credit to how steep the climb becomes at the top.
After the climb, I decided to plummet down the north-facing, densely forested, side of the ridge. I'd entered an alternative universe where snow carpeted the world, and a winter-like chill permeated the air. Now, my snowbike could excel at what it was designed to do.
After leaving a popular trail, I floated through deep snow, where no other humans had trod since the storm. Plenty of other animals, like coyotes, deer, and elk had left tracks but no humans.
On a whim, I took trail that I've never explored before, and I promptly found myself in completely unfamiliar terrain (with no GPS because exploring wasn't in my plans for today). However, I'm finding that by forcing myself to explore new places regularly, I no longer get as disoriented as I did before. I noted the sun direction, a deep gulch nearby, and a ridge in the distance. Using those as my guides, I wove my way through the forest, never panicking (my usual reaction to feeling worried about being lost). I soon recognized a familiar trail with a deep and plush carpet of snow, and I rode it out to the main road.

A few glimpses of familiar mountains in the distance also helped me recover my bearings so quickly. It's fun to finally be learning how to navigate after so many years of wandering in forests!


  1. Yet ANOTHER great post!

    That's how I tend to navigate: not panic - just keep my bearings in mind and go from there!

    Thanks again for sharing!

  2. I love the riding you do, but I also love the relationship you have with your dogs. Especially the copy cat behavior from the dog not asked to put his feet where Ks were, and he just did it because he knew you would reward for it!
    (his brain said any dummy can do THAT...see!)
    Cheers and hugs,
    Jo and Stella

  3. With six dogs, I am convinced that they watch each other to learn behavior clues around me. Some are quicker to imitate than others, but the behavior happens.

  4. Very interesting post - it is really interesting to watch how dogs interact together and learn from each other. Beautiful photos as always.

    Tail wags, the OP Pack

  5. It is so great to see R coming along. With K's example to follow, he's going to be such a good companion.

  6. Your landscape certainly has changed - I was wrong - you probably can have coffee on your deck! The pups are sure peppy - lucky that they get good exercise every day.

  7. I believe too that younger dogs learn from older dogs, which is why I tell myself not to get another dog until Java is better trained because she'd be teaching all the wrong things.

  8. Hey there KB

    Thank you for another fascinating blog post...lots of things today!

    You have an amazing understanding of your dogs and its lovely to see. Please can I share something on the "treating" and "learning from another" behaviour of our own doggies?

    Remember the picture of Toffee jumping through the hoop? (a day ago)...well, both Tammy & Max were in "Down-stays" throughout that photo session - whilst watching Toffee...and ALL the time they were being rewarded equally with the same treat which Toffee was getting. If I don't do that, I would never be able to get them to sit still during their companions' tricks.

    In terms of 'learning from each other', I have many, many examples over their long lives. The one that stands out is the "DEAD" command where Max has to lie on his side, "playing dead". This is a difficult command in that it puts the animal into total submission - including submitting to the other dogs around. (A dog has to be REALLY confident and trusting to do this -especiall if he is dominant, like Max). Ironically, Tammy has always battled with this command. She is naturally timid and becomes 'scared' if I ask her to "DEAD". Over the years however, she has watched Max respond to this command and is now willing to respond IF she is right next to him at the time.
    I agree, its all fascinating, but each dog is different. TOFFEE, for example, won't learn from any other dog!
    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. Please be safe.
    Max's mom in SA

  9. The equality thing is funny - I think I've read that study before, too, or at least a summary of it.

    Yet, Marge always baffles me with her choice of reward. I try to use high-value, moist, and stinky things for rewards when we're training at class and such, and alternate them as best I can. Yet, no matter what goodies I have, sometimes she'll spot something as boring as a biscuit or cracker and totally have a fit trying to work for it. She can sure be an enigma sometimes. It happened tonight, actually - they had a jar of dog cookies in the training hall while I had my hour of practice time. I whipped one out to see her reaction, and then that was all that she wanted - never mind the hot dogs that I had cut up.

  10. Fascinating post - for both the perspective on dog behaviors, and the scenery. Now let me ask an off topic question - is that a rigid fork on your snow bike?

  11. I love seeing R mimic K. What a sweetie! I read parts of that fairness study. Very interesting.


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