The Science of Multiple Markers (and the concepts associated with them)

Why use multiple markers?

For our dog to select the appropriate behavior for a given cue or context, their brain needs to have established associations among sensory stimuli, selected behaviors, and rewards. In training scenarios, typically the rewards are treats, toys, personal play, or a behavior the dog enjoys, and we associate these with the specific behavior/s we desire.

One part of the brain plays an important role in learning such stimulus-action-reward (antecedent-behavior-consequence) associations. However, another part of the brain is focused on reward-prediction error.

So, what is reward prediction error (RPE)?

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Understanding Fear in Dogs

The emotion of fear, and the associated fear response, are both completely normal components of any healthy animal. All dogs will show a fear response at some point in their life. It is particularly common to see fear responses in puppies and young dogs, as they learn about novel objects and situations.

A true fear response is a response focused on one or more specific and present stimuli. 

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Dog sports are team sports (and why that matters to train and compete in dog sports successfully)

It's easy to forget that dog sports really are team sports. Not a lot different to competing in the doubles kayak or pairs figure skating. It involves two individuals working towards a common sporting goal. Sometimes in dog sports we erroneously put too much emphasis on one member of the team—either we think the whole competition is about our dog's performance, or we put too much pressure on ourselves.

As the human in this partnership, it is often useful to divide our job into two distinct roles: one as team-mate and one as coach. Progress in training, and success in competition, can often be greatly improved if we look closely at specifically fulfilling the responsibilities of each of these roles.

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Choice in Dog Training Part 2: Increasing choice to prevent and address behavioral issues

So, last week in Part 1, we discussed all the situations where we may consider limiting our dog's choices. Now let us look at some situations where increasing choice (or even offering unlimited choice) may be useful.

Offering choice and control remains a cornerstone of animal welfare. However, it is a harsh reality that many of our dogs have little control over their own lives. 

Like all captive animals, we mostly control what they eat, when they eat and how much they eat; they are mostly confined to a space that we dictate (our home, fenced yard, etc.); we control when they get to leave our property and for how long; and we mostly control where they go and what they do. In many homes they also have limited choice as to whether they are inside or outside; where they rest / sleep; and many even have no independent choice of when they toilet. These are adult creatures, independently capable of many tasks, with amazing cognitive skills, and we control their lives far more than even a captive zoo animal (who at least can toilet at any time and is only very rarely confined to a crate).

Much of this control is necessary for dogs to be safe and healthy, and for them to exist successfully within our society and especially within our homes. Fortunately for the most part dogs are amazingly adaptive and enjoy the life they are given. However sometimes it is worth objectively considering just how "unnatural" their lives are, and how little true control they really have. 

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Choice in Dog Training Part 1: Reducing choice can be a good thing!

For many years we have understood that choice and control are imperative to the welfare of all living organisms. However, once this phenomenon was discovered, it was assumed that if choice is good, then more choice would be even better!

Many human studies have proven this to be incorrect. Indeed, too much choice may lead to ambivalence, frustration, confusion, anxiety, stress, drained psychological energy and reduction in self-regulation. Although this seems counter-intuitive, the phenomenon can be observed in even the most basic of marketing experiments.

When researchers open a mini-shop offering over 20 flavors of a particular product, and then close and re-open offering less than 10 flavors, the shop with less choice will sell far more product overall. Having greater choice, does not result in improved decision making; rather, reducing choice can be seen to facilitate the process of decision making and, in many studies, has been linked to a reduction in associated stress.

Some of the reasons for this are quite specific to humans, as we are able to feel ongoing regret for a perceived poor choice, and we have the capacity to continue to compare our selection to all of the choices we didn't select.

However, there are also some underlying principles that can easily be applied to our dogs. If we offer only a very limited number of choices in a given circumstance, then the decision process is less difficult, is likely to be made more quickly, with less frustration and/or ambivalence, and the "right" outcome is far more likely to be selected. We know this. We implement this in many of our training strategies. We set the dogs up for success. We limit the other options available (e.g., the item we want the dog to interact with is the only item in the training environment initially). Then of course in conjunction with this strategy we heavily reinforce the behavior we desire.

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