Friday, February 29, 2008

A Vending Machine for Crows

I quote from

Technology hacker Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins they find into a special vending machine that dispenses peanuts. He has been studying crows for over ten years and has learned that they are very intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. He's showing a video of how a crow learned to use a tool to pull an object out of of a tube. It's impressive.

Crows are smart and adaptable. For example, they drop nuts on streets so cars run over them, then wait for the traffic signal to change so they can pick up the food. Other crows who see this happen quickly learn how to do this for themselves.

His machine uses Skinnerian training. He put coins and peanuts around the machine. The crows eat the peanut on the feeder tray. Then Joshua took away the nuts and left coins in the feeder tray. It pisses off the crows. They sweep the coins around with their beaks, looking for food. When a coin accidentally drops into the slot, it dispenses a peanut. Next, Joshua took away the coins. The crows learned to find coins elsewhere and deposit them.

So now he wants to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks.

I think this is a brilliant way of profiting from clever wildlife. :-) We need to make sure we don't favor crows over other, more sensitive species, but imagine the possibilities of this -- automated corvid litter collection? Crow-assisted smoking bans? Ravens thieving sensitive documents from political offices? (Oh, wait, that's been done already!)

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Epic fail!" = Two New Legs :-)

Yesterday we attended a CDSP trial. Laev has been battling some sort of mystery ailment, which has been steadily sapping energy; we're waiting for bloodwork tests back. But in the meantime, we were already signed up for the trial and she showed no signs of anything communicable, so we went. If she were miserable, I'd pull her.

Laev was happy to be working with me! She was wagging, she did her behaviors energetically and happily, and by the second run of the day, she'd started doing her little grumbling bark as she finished, which usually means, "Hurry up! I hate this standing still bit!" As we were warming up, she even reverted to her "vertical heeling," which is basically a step-step-step-leap-step-step-leap-step-step-step-leap. I was thrilled. Who cares if it's sloppy, who cares if it's out of position, my dog is feeling better and happy to be with me!!

But we did have to go into the ring and compete. Laev was a bit distracted in the beginning, heeling wide and checking out the environment, but then about halfway through the pattern she realized what we were doing and snapped to work. (In CDSP I could have used a bit of praise to encourage her back to place, but I don't feel very comfortable with that -- first, the praise is really a second command, and that's kind of cheating :) and second, I don't want to get in the habit of helping her out in the ring.)

Handler error on the broad jump, so we lost a few points. (I stood in wrong spot.) Full points on drop on recall. The retrieves were a bit funny; Laev came in and sat a little far out (she never quite believes she can fit the dumbbell between us) and then after a second of hesitation, scooted in to a close front.

Time for the go out. We've barely trained this, she wasn't feeling well the last couple of weeks to work on it, and I certainly haven't generalized it to new locations; she's done it only in our own space and then once at another spot. That's it. So this was an exercise in faith. I marked the send with my hand and cued, "Go!"

Laev ran out and then slowed uncertainly. Go where, again? She scanned the ring, trotting, and then headed for the high jump. She jumped it and glanced back. "Sit," I cued, and she did.

Well, I was sure that was an NQ. "Epic fail!" I told her cheerily. "Bad dog!"

Laev wagged her tail proudly. She thinks "bad dog!" is a private joke we made up.

So no further reinforcement for that one; I leashed her and took her out, thanking the judge. But the judge thought it wasn't an NQ, and she called the rep to consult. After a few minutes, they determined that Laev had earned her first Open leg.

So, that was nice. We celebrated with some hot dog bits. (I finally found a brand I don't find too abhorrent to use!)

Second run, Laev did much better, even more enthusiasm. I was proud of how she caught herself, about to go around the jump after retrieving a bounced dumbbell, and corrected her course.

Time for the go out. "Go!' Laev ran right out, veered to her spot behind the high jump and turned to face me. "Sit," I cued -- what else? She was quite pleased with herself. Have I mentioned that Laev is a one-rep learner? That bit of silly talk before was all she needed to cement that spot in her mind.

"You're going to be paying for that for the next four years," my friend Melissa said knowingly.

Ah, Laev.... Darn these smart clicker dogs.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Predatory Overdrive as training setup

So a couple of weeks ago, my innovative training director came up with something to help us out.

Laev was being very distracted by a corner of the training barn where she just KNEW she should check for mice and cats. So we went over there, and another club member reached under the wall with a glove and faked small, darting prey movement. At the same time, the helper behind us cracked his whip to stimulate her further.

It was roughly like putting me between chocolate-covered almonds and fudge. Laev's brain ramped up to threshold and teetered on the edge.

I cued Laev to sit. She was hectic, but finally she tore her eyes to meet mine in a hope that I'd release her to SOMETHING. I clicked and sent her to the helper for a bite.

Repeated attempts produced a slightly faster sit, though I had to help her with a physical cue (lightly touch the left hip, stabilizing her at heel instead of letting her spin out like a banshee). I am very hopeful that this technique will work well for us in the future. I can't spend much time on it now, though, because Laev's prey-monster mindset is leading her to thrash on the slipped sleeve -- ugly -- and is uglifying our outs. So we have to back off the prey stimulation for a bit, balance it with aggression, 'til that's fixed.

And oh, remember how we said it was all Fabio's fault? (That's the sire who is said to be an excellent working dog but for his abnormally high attraction to small furries.) Well, that's not strictly true. I spoke with Laev's breeder, who said that her dam is also the most likely to go after rabbits, squirrels, etc. above all else. So, my club concluded, Laev is line-bred on critter obsession, which is why they call her "the worst I've ever seen."

But hey, at least I know it's not just me. :-) And we're making progress!