Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Airport Epiphany (My Foray into Positive Rienforcement)

So I've posted about this on my personal friends and family blog, and nobody cared about it there either, but too bad.

I just got back from a rather hellish road trip. A friend of mine was moving across country and needed someone to help drive the U-Haul. I agreed because that's what friends do. I will explore this trip further in comic form in a future post. The one bright spot was that during the trip I was reading Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot The Dog.

I've been exploring clicker training/ positive reinforcement training since I acquired my dog. She was my mother's dog (we got her my senior year of high school, so I've known her all her life and had a hand in her early development). Mom gave her to me because she didn't want me to be lonely since I'm living by myself now. I haven't been able to have pets because of college, then the no pets apartment I had, and I kept thinking I would get one later. Well, I got sick of waiting for a whole bunch of things (ability to take time off, to have a pet, to have a social life, to have my own private living space) all at the same time and it's all still shaking down, but a part of that was that I got the dog.

Sorry, slight detour. I just got done making chicken-fried pork loin and mashed sweet potatoes for dinner and it turned out Delicious. There is nothing a potato can do that a sweet potato can't do better. Who needs dessert? They're like candy. Anyway, the dog...

She never had much in the way of training (except during her stint as Toto in a local production of The Wizard of Oz, in which she was fabulous). She's very friendly, well socialized, quiet and generally well behaved and also too small and ridiculous to be intimidating to anyone (apricot miniature poodle) so she generally went without and no one really felt the loss.

Well, she'd also lived in the same house and with the same people for almost her entire life. Moving in with me was a jolt for her I think, and though she'd never had issues like it back home, she developed some separation anxiety and couldn't be left alone without barking shrilly and constantly for as long as I was gone.

I've never done any dog training before. We'd had dogs my whole life as a child, but nobody trained them aside from 'sit,' I don't think either of my parents had any idea how and I certainly didn't. So now here I am as a full fledged adult (I don't even qualify for my mom's health insurance anymore) and I have a problem pet. My GF, who knows kind of a lot about positive reinforcement training for a layperson, gave me some reading material and helped get me started.

I really like it. We both do (me and the dog). It makes every training session a game, and I can see Amelie (the dog) thinking her way through problems. There's no pushing or shoving the dog into position, no choke or shock collars, no punishment which means no yelling or guilt. Besides, punishment doesn't teach you to do anything except avoid punishment. I do feel occasionally rueful when the dog gets into food that I didn't put away properly, but I recognize that the fault was mine and not hers and that there's nothing to be gained by getting mad.

The best part is watching her think her way through the puzzles in front of her. I can watch the gears spinning as she tries to figure out what to do to make me click, and it's really thrilling to see the "ah ha!" moment when she figures it out.

Recently I've feel like I've had my own little "ah ha." When I began all this I sort of grasped the theory but was a little bit lost when it came to figuring out how to get her to do what I wanted her to do so I could reward her and get her to do it again. Before when she'd stare at me blankly, I'd just stare back. Now I still don't always know what to do, but I feel like I can figure it out. If she sits and stares at me I know I need to get her moving somehow, if the treat gets too distracting I need to figure out a way to get her to focus on me, that sort of thing.

Of course part of my success probably rightly belongs to Amelie. She's figured out how the game works now. She'd never been asked to think, or be creative before and I think I'm getting it now because she's worked it out first.

The problem I have is that I try to explain how cool this is to people, but they don't get it really. Today's big breakthrough was that we figured out how to pick up a barbel. I'm teaching her to play fetch. She never figured it out on her own, and until I started researching dog training I had no idea it could be taught, but, of course it can.

But it leads to conversations like this;

Me: OMG! We had the BEST training session today! It was so cool! We're making so much progress!

Bystander (only mildly interested in hearing about my dog to begin with): What did you teach her?

Me: She learned to pick something up! In her mouth!!@1!!

Bystander: Uh...

But seriously, everyone should try this. If you don't have a pet, try it on your children or spouse, or someone else's children, or random wild animals in your neighborhood (small ones that won't attack or give you rabies), or go buy yourself a mouse or a fish, or just anything. It's really an amazing bonding experience.

Which brings me (sorta) back to Don't Shoot The Dog. It's about positive reinforcement training, and how we learn, and how to teach someone to learn. An offshoot of the work of B. F. Skinner, and an important text in it's own right. I think that this book will be/has been quietly life changing for me. It has taught me a lot about the way people interact with each other, and how I can communicate more effectively. My mother is a school teacher and has a degree in behavioral psychology. She studied Skinner et. al. and says that his theories affect the way she interacts with people on an everyday basis. Me too.

There's an anecdote in the book about a man who decided to improve his squash game with positive reinforcement. Instead of berating himself for bad shots he began commending himself for doing well. His game drastically improved and he began beating people he couldn't compete with before. And he was always faintly smug when they got mad at themselves on the court. At first I thought it was a charming, telling anecdote. Then, sitting in the Denver airport with my makeshift sketch pad and waiting for my flight back home after the road trip from hell, I realized that I could apply this lesson to myself.

My sketch books are full of self-abuse. If I'm frustrated with a drawing I'll write "Anna sucks today," or "this sucks" or "why can't I draw today?" or longer more vitriolic things. I don't get particularly worked up (except sometimes when I'm really frustrated) and it's all mostly tongue in cheek, but there are lots of times when I go for a while without drawing. Weeks even. I love to draw. I want to make it my life's work. Why then do I put it off? Sometimes I chalk it up to laziness and wonder if I really have what it takes. Now I think this reaction may have to do with a self imposed negative association, when I draw I feel bad if it's not good enough.

Wouldn't it be better to feel good when it is good enough? The two ideas sound the same, but they aren't. It was one of those revelations you have where you wonder why you didn't see it before when it was so incredibly, glaringly obvious.

So, sitting in the Denver airport, I decided. I will never ever write anything mean about myself in my sketch book again. I will write positive things. "Good job," "This turned out well!" "I like this line." I think that this will make a big difference in my art, I think that I won't feel so stifled, or so quick to give up on projects that aren't going well. Anyone who flips through my sketch book will think I'm dreadfully narcicistic, but that's what everyone already thinks about artists anyway. Hopefully I'll learn as quickly as the dog.

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