Science on Tap: Erica Feuerbacher on Dog (and People!) Training

Erica Feuerbacher and her assistant Iorek taught a Science on Tap audience about dog training.

“What I’m going to tell you about this evening doesn’t just work for your dog,” said Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor in the animal and poultry sciences department at Virginia Tech. “It works for your spouse, your boss, your employees, your children. . .anyone!”

Feuerbacher was speaking at the Center for Communicating Science’s September 27 Science on Tap event at Rising Silo brewery, where two- and four-legged friends met! The audience had been invited to bring their dogs to her discussion about the science of dog behavior and demonstration of humane dog training.

Erica Feuerbacher is a board-certified behavior analyst and certified professional dog trainer. At Virginia Tech, she teaches a course called Companion Animal Welfare and Behavior. Her research focuses on the human-dog relationship, how dogs learn, and how we can best train them. Her furry assistant, Iorek, is a German Shepherd who is a “workaholic,” competes in agility competitions, and helps with demonstrations such as Feuerbacher’s Science on Tap talk.

“We learn the same way that dogs do, and they learn the same way that we do,” Feuerbacher said. She began her talk by answering some trivia quiz questions concerning common dog behavior and training terminology. Shaping, which she says is “addictive once you get into it,” helps teach a dog a new behavior. Shaping involves reinforcement, usually food, that encourages the dog to engage in this new behavior through increasing frequency. A clicker, a conditioned reinforcer, is used to signify that food, the positive reinforcer, is coming and that the dog will be rewarded soon after the clicking sound is heard.

A few owners from the audience volunteered to conduct a small shaping exercise with their dogs. They were given a box, a clicker, and a treat. The objective of the exercise was to encourage the dog to investigate and play with the box. First, the volunteers were asked to use the clicker and to give the dog a treat following a click 10 times in a row. This allowed the dog to associate the clicking with the treat. Once that was completed, the owner put the empty cardboard box on the ground. Only when the dog investigated the box did the owner click the clicker and give them a treat. It was amazing to witness how quickly the dogs changed their behavior and focused their attention on the boxes!

Feuerbacher warned that shaping is a challenging task for novice dogs and that they would need high reinforcement. She recommended to future, novice trainers, “You will have to meet learners at their level and you will need to make it fun. Your dog will tell you if you’re not fun. If you’re a bad trainer, they’ll leave.”

To best shape your dog’s behavior, she recommended being as consistent as possible by using the same words for commands and saying them in the same way. In addition, she told owners to focus on what the dog has done well, a message best received through repetitive positive reinforcement.

For problem behaviors, “Identity what you want the dog to do instead of what they are currently doing,” said Feuerbacher. For example, she said, “Iorek likes to jump and lick people in the face, and by asking him to sit instead, that gives him something else to do”.

To make reinforcers more effective and to help determine how sensitive your dog is to behavioral training, Feuerbacher said that you will have to ask your dog how much it is willing to work until it realizes that the effort is not worth the reward.

“See how long they will go until they taper out. Iorek is a bit of a workaholic,” she said. Iorek demonstrated his zest for work by performing “nose targeting,” in which he touches Feuerbacher’s extended hand. Iorek touched her hand with his nose once and received a treat. Touched her hand twice, and received a treat. Touched her hand three times, and received a treat. And he repeated this action until he received a treat for eight nose touches–at which point he decided he was working too hard for such a small treat and turned his attention instead to the audience.

One of Feuerbacher’s main areas of research concerns shelter dog welfare.

“How do we make sure that they are coming out better dogs than when they came in?” she asks. She once conducted a foster home sleepover study, where she noticed that the dogs’ levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, decrease dramatically when they are at a home for two nights, as opposed to when they are in a shelter. When the dogs are brought back to the shelter, their baseline cortisol levels return. This evidence could help shelters ensure that the dogs are happy and well cared for while they wait for their new “forever home.” She’s currently doing research on housing shelter dogs using a buddy system instead of keeping each shelter dog alone in a pen.

Another area of research that Feuerbacher shared with the audience concerned whether dogs like petting or praise more. Once again, dog owner volunteers were asked to participate in a demonstration. One volunteer petted the dog, and the other volunteer gave the dog praise, such as “Good dog.” Her studies–and the mini-research project conducted at Science on Tap–show that most dogs prefer petting, so much so that “Dogs will leave their owners who are giving vocal praise and go to a stranger who will pet them,” Feuerbacher said. In other words, keep your dogs close, and your petting will bring them closer!

By Kendall Daniels, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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