Next up in our series of Community Spotlights, I chatted with @irreverance. Bo is the CM at fatwallet.com and has a pretty interesting background, and an even more interesting hobby! We talked about dog training and how some of those skills can be applied to community building.
Hawk: Can you give us a brief bio and history of your community career?
Bo: I began working with community as a Presbyterian pastor back in 2003. My interest was in community redevelopment and new church development. After three years of that, I became a moderator for FatWallet.com. As of 7 months ago, I am now the Community Manager there. Through the years, enriched by both study and practical experience, I have learned a lot about community and how to move it. But, strangely enough, I think what I’ve learned recently practicing modern, science-based dog training has taken that skill to whole new levels.
Hawk: Dog training? Really? Can you tell us more about this “modern, science-based dog training”?
Bo: More popularly known as “positive” or “force-free” training, it’s an approach that leverages a cognitive-behavioral understanding of dogs to facilitate relationships, bring healing, and change behavior. In contrast to older approaches, it avoids anything that the dog considers aversive in favor of methods that create a positive experience, because positive experiences facilitate the bonding and learning processes.
Hawk: What are the methods used and how do they work?
Bo: The short version is: reinforce the behavior you want, and do not reinforce the behavior you don’t. Usually, the reinforcement comes in the form a a tidbit of food, since that is basic to the dog’s survival. But not all dogs respond the same way to the same rewards. It’s important to pay attention to the dog in front of you in order to determine what will work as the best reinforcer.
It’s also important to work in small, easy-to-accomplish steps. When asking a dog to “shake,” begin by rewarding a slight shift of the paw. Then reward the paw coming a little off the ground. Eventually, you reward the paw touching your hand. Baby steps keep the process successful, which makes it engaging and fun for all involved.
Focusing on positive reinforcement and incremental progress becomes more important when working with dogs who have issues, such as aggressive resource guarding and reactivity toward other dogs. These cases call for behavior modification techniques, such as desensitization and counterconditioning.
Hawk: We’ve been talking a bit about changing behaviour here at FeverBee. How does behaviour modification with dogs work?
Bo: It’s important to understand that behavior happens as a result of pursuing that which is most rewarding. If a dog reacts aggressively to another dog, it is because the dog experiences other dog’s presence negatively in some way. Therefore, the dog is doing what it can to force the other dog to leave, with the goal (the reward) being the absence of the other dog.
The trainer’s job is to actively change how the dog experiences the stimulus (which is the other dog). By working “under threshold” (which means in the presence of the stimulus, but far enough away to avoid a negative experience), the trainer uses rewards to pair a positive association with the stimulus. Over time, the dog is conditioned to expect good things (rather than previously expected bad things) to happen when another dog appears. As a result of changing experiential associations, the dog’s behavior changes from aggressive to friendly.
Hawk: What would be your No. 1 tip for people that want to change the behaviour of members in their community?
Bo: Remember, people, just like dogs, choose to do that which is most rewarding (or meaningful) to them. If people are bullying others, it is because they find that behavior more rewarding than treating them respectfully. If people are lurking, it is because they find lurking more rewarding than participating (alternatively, they find it more rewarding to be reading your site than others). If people are leaving, it is because they find it more rewarding to spend their time elsewhere. If you want to change behavior, you have to change the reward system.
Hawk: Would you rather fight 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?
Bo: That’s an interesting question. Um… well, since I’m used to fighting with members of a community, I’m going to go with 100 duck-sized horses.
Here is @irreverance teaching Ranger to ‘watch me’. They still have some work to do.