Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Animal training

12. Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor

Yes, our household has officially gone clicker training crazy; from "I didn't know cats can be trained" to "OMG she's learning all these tricks!" in just a few weeks. If you want to learn more about clicker training, go to this Karen Pryor website, which has a bunch of links and resources.

After having watched a couple of low-quality YouTube videos and reading Pryor's wonderful Don't Shoot the Dog, a book about positive reinforcement, behavior shaping and operant conditioning, I got very intrigued by clicker training. Once we adopted our cat, we began to train her as soon as she was over her shelter bugs. She learned a "Come" command very quickly, and I was simply amazed. Still, I wasn't doing something exactly right because she would "forget" her command if she was at all distracted.

So I bought two books on the topic, with step-by-step instructions.

This Pryor book is a great introduction for clicker training for cats (and well, why not other animals, too?): the book explains shortly how operant conditioning works and when it works: not only does the trainer need to know when to give the positive reinforcement, he or she also needs to know whether something in the environment is hindering the cat from learning. In addition, the book talks about positive side effects of clicker training, which include the cat being more interested in you, the human, as a companion. And as a kitten owner, I can attest to one of Pryor's assertions: that the cat will spend a little bit less time tearing around the house and clawing at furniture when her energy is spent on trying to figure out how to get that positive reaction from the trainer.

The only issue this book (or the one below) does not cover is how the cat may accidentally become conditioned to the sight of the clicker. In our case, our cat immediately begins to purr and perks up when I take the clicker out, and she's really into being a working cat during training. As soon as the clicker goes away, only the most reinforced stuff stays in her mind. She's a completely different cat, based on whether I have the clicker in my hand or not. So, as a word of warning: try to hide that clicker.

I was also hoping to see more step-by-step instructions for the trainer instead of success stories.

13. Cat Training in 10 Minutes a Day by Miriam Fields-Babineau

Whereas the Pryor book focused more on the hows and whys of positive reinforcement in operant conditioning, this book focuses on certain tricks or behaviors, and shows via images and step-by-step instructions how to train your cat to do certain things (and how to correct her if you have taught her wrong).

This is an amazingly useful book, and I taught our cat within 10 minutes to sit upon command and a finger movement by just following the instructions. Each photo comes with an explanation of why the cat will do what you want her to do. This proved to be handier than I expected: as I was attempting to teach our cat how to lie down, the first step is to teach the cat to paw at your hand--which then makes the cat want to reach from the sitting position and eventually paw so low and far as you move your hand further that she will need to lie down. I thought, "If I can teach her to paw my hand, I can teach her to high five me!" She's now learning the high five. Yesterday, I tried to take a short film of her practicing, and I was reviewing the video while sitting on the floor. When I said on the video "high five!" she came to me and lifted her paw up. Haha, cute.

I don't think all the tricks in the book are that useful. For one, I would rather not have my cat learn twirling, but I guess it makes a cute trick. With that said, the author does stress that training should begin with teaching the cat commands that might end up keeping her safe; things such as "come," "sit." These are also needed before learning other tricks such as twining between legs (the cat needs to know the command "come" and how to follow a target) or standing up on command (from sitting position). Then you can go for the sillier ones such as "play dead." And like I said in our high-five case, even the sillier tricks can give the trainer hints for training something completely different.

The other part that was not very useful to me was the talk about Hollywood cats, but the inclusion of those stories is understandable: the author trains cats for commercials and movies, so these starlets are obviously a testament to the training really working.

This teeny tiny book is extremely useful with its simple instructions and illustrations, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has had enough of their cat jumping on tables or behaving badly due to boredom.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

- Look, kid! Tulips! - No, Dad, it's three lips!

11. The Infinite Gift--How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Charles Yang

What do you get when a linguist has a child? Plenty of fun research material!
Charles Yang's incredibly accessible, yet not at all dumbed-down book on language acquisition and learning talks about the ways in which the concept of a universal grammar seems very plausible considering how children learn to speak languages that surround them: most of the time, the so-called errors children make would actually be perfectly grammatical in some other language. And this is what the title refers to: an entertaining notion that children need to unlearn all other grammars first before they stick to the one they hear in the language spoken by their caretakers.

Because the groundwork for perfect grammar skills is laid out in the brain by the age of four or five, the book talks about various developmental stages where certain grammatical aspects are learned. Yang discusses not only the common errors that English-speaking children make when they are testing out their grammatical abilities and vocabulary skills, but also in which ways children always get grammar right, from the get-go.

The most intriguing bits for me personally were the segments where Yang explains how certain grammatical aspects are tested on children to see, what is the age when that aspect is acquired in grammatical knowledge. You cannot give a three-year-old a multiple choice sheet, asking to identify the correctly formed sentence, nor you can really ask a small children whether a sentence is correct or not because they are prone to say "yes" to any authority (or the other option: spout out nonsense and laugh hysterically). Lots of tests included Jabba the Hut and Kermit the Frog puppets.

Toward the end, Yang quickly throws some criticism toward educators and therapists: apparently, language acquisition linguists have not been consulted among when a child's language skills have been assessed by schools until fairly recently, which means that often, when a child seems to have language-related problems, the therapists have not been equipped with enough information about regional varieties in spoken language, or the ways in which usually children acquire languages. Their template is usually to look at what is the desired produced language form, and if the child is not using that by an age determined by whichever authority, then there's a problem. In Yang's opinion, all children deviate from the norm when they are learning a grammar--at one point or another. Also, because a "dominant" grammar of a language is used as the bench mark, this sort of testing makes children from "certain social and economic strata particularly susceptible to misdiagnosis" (173), mostly because of the regional variety or dialect issue.

Not only is the book extremely informative, Yang's writing style was entertaining and occasionally tongue in cheek, which made reading this book a breeze.

If you're ever concerned about your kid's odd sentences, check this book out. Maybe your child just needs to unlearn some German grammar before tackling English.