Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Practical Marker Training for the Working Dog Part II

So now that we've discussed a few practical ways for handlers and owners to incorporate marker training into some day to day husbandry and vet vets, let's discuss how veterinary professionals might be able to use reward based positive reinforcement and marker training into their practice. I know what you're probably thinking..."we have a REALLY busy practice, how can we ever incorporate this into our daily day to day?"  An excellent question!

One caveat is that reward based marker training usually works with food (but not always), so it isn't always going to be able to be used.  For example, animals about to undergo sedation or general anesthesia are not the best candidates for having bellies full of treats beforehand due to risks of aspiration.  Another is that you as the receptionist, assistant, nurse, or doctor should ask before giving dogs treats as sometimes interesting diet histories revealing food allergies/sensitivities may come to light that didn't pop up during the history in the exam room.  My own dogs are on a relatively controlled diet and I dislike pet store clerks who try to give them junk food like Milkbones or Pupperoni without me asking (after all, they don't have to clean up the diarrhea the next morning!).

So how can you use rewards based training or marker training in practice?  Some of these were covered in the previous post, such as the use of conditioning of muzzles as a treat cup instead of punishment.  There are likely many, many applications that are limited only by your imagination (and budget for treats and time!), especially using with puppy visits.  Many puppies won't even flinch if Cheese Whiz is applied to the exam table in a six inch strip while vaccines are being administered.  Encourage puppy owners to stop by the vet's office just for "cookie exams" where they get weighed and treats and nothing bad happens.  The time you spend now with the pups will pay off when they are adults.  Unfortunately, many adult dogs with low to mid level food drives will not be interested in taking dry biscuit treats due to nervousness in a place they associate as new or previously unpleasant.  Take your time with these guys as it may prevent a bite.  For dogs who do need muzzles but that you wish to work on desensitization and counter conditioning, again, don't use a cloth muzzle!  Use a basket muzzle like in the previous post.  Jafco muzzles have holes for ventilation on the sides that can accommodate the tip of a Cheese Whiz bottle very nicely and they can be hand washed or put in the dishwasher on the upper rack, unlike leather muzzles.

Beyond just using treats in practice, how can you specifically use marker training?  One valuable application of clicker training is physical rehabilitation and sports medicine.  If a dog needs to learn how to stay in place on a physioball, disc, crossing cavelettis or ladders, or starting on the underwater treadmill, marker training is an excellent method to communicate to the dog exactly what you want.  Particularly since many rehab patients are drop off or occasionally boarding patients, either the tech or the doctor performing the rehab can spend as much time as needed to start the marker training process.  The dog will also get what you asking for (a specific behavior to perform an exercise) more quickly. 

Hopefully this post will give you some ideas on using food rewards in practice and perhaps branching out into marker training.  If anyone has any other ideas or tips, feel free to share!

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