The Zoo of Life
Animal related philosophy and humour
In 2006 a South African man, Phillip Matthysen, made sickening headlines when he used a chainsaw to decapitate his 4-month old Siberian Husky puppy after it ate his favourite parrot.
It seems both strange and appropriate that Matthysen was killed in a car accident on the morning of Sunday 12 August. He was alone in his Toyota Land Cruiser on the R50 some distance from Pretoria, and apparently rolled the vehicle. There were no other cars involved.
He died of severe head injuries.
This is a dog site, ok? I am a dog behaviourist, ok? Are you sure you’ve got that? I do domestic dog behaviour, that is, the behaviour of Canis Familiaris, or Canis Lupus Familiaris, depending on which side of the Wolf Fence you straddle. Is that clear?
Why so emphatic? Well, I have to confess that it’s with a certain amount of manic glee that I’ve discovered that my, er, fame is spreading in quarters beyond the usual haunts of doggy people.
It all started with the Clicker Primer on my old clickermagic.com site (which is still there to redirect people, but has been superseded by the Dog Zone, with all its lovely content management bells and whistles.)
I set up the Clicker Primer, a collection of training lessons in a logical order, to walk people who had never clicker trained through starting a dog off on the clicker. The material is a bit more theoretical than many beginning clicker sites and books, partly because I know from experience that it’s the operant techniques underlying clicker training that make it so powerful, and partly because I think it’s possible to present fairly complex material like this in such a way that it’s relatively easy to understand. And this, of course, opens the door for many people to learn to apply the theory and modify their own techniques as they go along, which is when this kind of training really comes to life.
Anyway, I digress (I’m getting old so I’m allowed to).
Part of the Clicker Primer was, of course, a page on Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules, and because the most useful of these is in my opinion the Variable Ratio reinforcement schedule, and because this is a bit difficult to explain to people without a background in behaviourism, I decided to do a couple of explanatory graphics, and I took some trouble over the explanation.
And I didn’t give it another thought until I decided to move clickermagic.com to dogzone.co.za and set up a content management system.
As part of the exercise, I checked clickermagic.com for incoming links, and, much to my surprise, discovered that there were quite a few that I didn’t know about (I’ve had the occasional request to reproduce an article but didn’t expect to find incoming links beyond the obligatory attribution.)
And most of the surprise links were to my intermittent reinforcement schedules page.
The first one that caused a certain amount of mirth was the discovery that clickermagic.com had turned up in the bibliography of a presentation given at an international conference on Polar Bear husbandry, cited on the website of a wonderful organisation called Polar Bears International (http://www.polarbearsinternational.org). This site has a wealth of information about Polar Bears and in particular the impact of global warming on their habitats, and is well worth supporting.
The mirth came from the fact that although I now live in Cape Town again, I had set up clickermagic.com and written most of the original articles on it while running a behaviour practice in McGregor, an extremely hot and very quirky little village in the Little Karoo in South Africa.
Of course I couldn’t resist writing to Polar Bears International to ask whether the link qualified me as an International Polar Bear trainer. I pointed out that South Africa was a bit hot for polar bears, but that I supposed I could buy a bigger fridge, and received a very amiable reply (I would love to learn to mush and have a sled-driving holiday planned when I can afford it, so will definitely be paying the PBI folks a visit when my holiday eventually materialises.)
Then the myth burgeoned somewhat. McGregor, where I still have many friends, is a very well-preserved 19th Century village, and still has a system of gravity fed stone irrigation channels known as ‘leiwater’ (literally: led water) fed by a dam at the top of the village.
Bruno, a close friend who lives in McGregor and works as an architect, insisted that he had seen a polar bear in the leiwater dam one morning and speculated that they might be migrating as a result of global warming.
Various unsavoury people insinuated that I had been seen in the show ring trying to pass off a polar bear as a Pyrrhenean Mountain Dog.
But the cherry on the top was provided by my friend Adam, who took over from me as webmaster of www.mcgregor.org.za.
"I don’t know what all the fuss is about," he said loftily. "Polar bears are easy to train. It’s the bipolar ones you have to watch out for."
That wasn’t the end of it. I then discovered that the intermittent reinforcement schedules page was tagged in various blogs, ranging from articles on management consulting (how to get your employees addicted to work) to addiction (substances, email, take your pick) as well as a (few) actual dog sites.
Oh, and it was also at google no 1 for, you guessed it, "intermittent reinforcement schedules". (I can just see all those slavering teenagers trying to find the latest cool thing on the net and discovering a dog training site…..:) )
However, I went ahead and moved the site, leaving a couple of pages on clickermagic.com as redirects. It works for me to have a .co.za suffix because I live in South Africa. Although I’m an animal lover in general, I specialise in dog behaviour. And there’s a lot more to behaviour practice than just clicker training, although it’s certainly a very important weapon in the arsenal. So it made sense to make the change, and I thought that that would be the end of my 15 minutes of fame.
Until the other day, when I got an email from someone who said a professor at Colorado State University had referred him to clickermagic.com for advice on how to train his bison.
So I’m eagerly awaiting my first giraffe.