I’ve heard about the MannersMinder for years, but I put off buying one until now for two reasons.
The first reason is money. While I am usually quite willing to try out promising, positive-reinforcement training gear, this product used to sell for over $100, and that seemed like a lot of money for something that would be an experiment for me. (It’s still pricey, but not that much.) I also wasn’t convinced it could really be that much more useful than clicker training the way I’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half.
The second reason is that it can only be used with kibble or other mass-produced, uniformly sized treats. Barnum generally will not work for kibble, and I also don’t believe kibble is the healthiest way to feed my dog.
However, another partner-trainer I met online (Hi Robin!) encouraged me repeatedly to get the MannersMinder. She was convinced it would help solve some of my training conundrums, so I did a bit of research and discovered it was created and tested by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and behaviorist whom I greatly admire. Feeling a bit desperate for an easier way to train when I’m unable to toss treats repeatedly, and reassured that it was not the result of a silly fad, I set out to find a kibble that might work.
One of my main issues with kibble is that it is made using an extrusion process that requires extremely high heat. This not only strips the food of much of its nutrient value and flavor, but this super-high-heat processing also makes kibble carcinogenic. Because Gadget died of mast cell cancer after finishing treatment for a first cancer, lymphosarcoma, I am very wary of exposing Barnum to any carcinogens, especially a daily dose of them.
Fortunately, someone from the Lymphoma HeartDogs Angels list I’m on told me about Flint River Ranch, which makes kibble that is baked, not extruded. I bought some samples of their different kibbles and taste-tested them on Barnum. Only some of their kibble is in “nugget” form — uniformly sized and shaped — the rest is “freeform,” like what you’d get if you baked actual food without a mold. So, I was only interested in the nugget varieties. Fortunately, Barnum loved it all! Definitely a step up from regular kibble, in his opinion.
I took the plunge and ordered the MannersMinder. When it arrived, I tested the remaining sample kibble to see if it fit in the machine. It did, and I invested in a couple of bags of very pricey Flint River Ranch dog food.
So what is the MannersMinder? It’s a remote treat delivery system. It’s basically a combination clicker/food dispenser. You have a remote control, and when you press it, the machine beeps, signaling to the dog that it is about to deliver a treat, which it does. (Here is a FAQ.)
One use I had in mind for the MM is to work through some separation anxiety. Barnum did not used to have SA. I put in effort, when he was a pup, to prevent it, and that was successful — until I stopped working to maintain the behavior. Now, if I leave him behind at home, or if I’m out with him and leave him with another person, he barks and howls and whines. Because you can use the MM to deliver reinforcements from a distance (of 100 yards, I think? Maybe 100 feet? I don’t have the booklet in front of me to look it up), I’ll be able to give him something to focus on when I move away and out of sight, and reward him for being calm and quiet.
There is actually a setting on the machine which allows you to select for reinforcement intervals (uniform or variable), so that it will pay off without you needing to press the remote. This is great if you want to focus on something else while your dog practices their “go to mat” or “down stay” or “remain quietly at home without mom.”
I have primarily been using the MM to train Barnum to go into his crate or to lie on a towel against the wall when I am about to eat a meal. I eat in bed, and we spend almost all our time in my bedroom, so there isn’t a clear environmental cue meaning “clear out” of a dining table or kitchen table like there is for most dogs. We spend a lot of time together on my bed, but I want him to understand that when I’m eating a meal, he has to be somewhere else. “Somewhere else” is a pretty vague concept. It’s one that Gadget understood, but I haven’t been able to convey it to Barnum.
Here’s a very short video of us putting the MannersMinder to work. It’s a quite unusual example of how we use it because normally Barnum is staring very hard at the MannersMinder, willing it to deliver a treat. In the beginning, after he understood what it did, he’d actually rest his chin right in the machine’s bowl! I think he was probably not that hungry when we made this video clip for you, so he wasn’t concentrating his Stare Beam at the machine.
(If you’re reading this post in an email, you can see the video by clicking on this link.)
If your dog is already clicker-savvy, if he is “operant,” he will probably do what Barnum did when I first placed it on the floor — run over, check it out, and start trying out behaviors! It was very funny. He pawed at it. He walked around it. He hovered over it. He tried pawing it from different sides. He nudged it with his nose. He nudged it from different sides and angles and with differing intensity. (Yes, he was playing, “101 Things to Do with a MannersMinder.”) He nudged it with such increasing vigor and frequency (an extinction burst), that he actually shoved it across the floor and into my wall. I was very impressed with the design of the machine — obviously made to withstand exactly this treatment — that it did not tip over and spill out a ginormous jackpot of treats!
Barnum has occasionally whined and groused at it, though he’s not a barker, so he didn’t go into a barking fit. Because I didn’t press the remote when he tried out these undesirable behaviors, he gave them up. He has learned, over time, that the machine only pays up when he is lying down in front of it.
This is obviously a great tool for training static behaviors, but I can also see how it can be extremely useful for someone with a disability or a fatiguing condition to make training a number of behaviors easier, whether static or dynamic. Here are some examples.
- Exercising your dog when you aren’t able to take long, vigorous, or regular walks or throw a ball around can be difficult. You can play a variant of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels’ “Come Game“ using the MM as your second person. You’re on the couch. The MM is at the opposite end of the house. You call your dog and give him a treat. Then you ask for a sit, and when he sits, you press the remote. The beep is his “click” for giving you the sit. He runs to the MM to snork up his kibble, and you call him. He runs back. Click/treat, ask for sit (or down or whatever). Beep him, he runs to get the treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. You combine training, exercise, and dinner.
- Training when you’re at a distance or need to move the dog around but are unable (due to pain, exhaustion, or mobility issues) to toss treats over and over. For example, if I want Barnum to work on sit, down, crate, or other behaviors while I’m lying in bed, I can put the MM on the floor or in his crate. I can “beep” behaviors when I want him to move to or stay where the MM is, and/or I can click and hand him treats when I want him moving toward me. This would also keep up the excitement level for him, because he wouldn’t know what type of treat was coming next, and where it was coming from. But I wouldn’t have to throw a variety of treats repeatedly to achieve this effect.
- You can even get a “treat tossing effect” using the MM if you put it at the edge of a high surface (like a counter, table, or appliance) and remove the bowl/rim. Then, when you beep, the treat will slide down and bounce of the floor. It won’t land in exactly the same place every time, so the dog will have to run after it, which most dogs find exciting.
- Giving your dog some mental exercise when you are too tired to train. Once she knows what she has to do in order for the MM to pay off, you can have her doing a long down-stay to earn her dinner, or repeated sits. If the behavior is established enough, and she understands the MM well enough, you can set it to dispense without having to use the remote.
- It can act as a second pair of hands. If you want your dog occupied and happy and standing up while you groom her, put the MM so it is dispensing treats at snout level and set it to dispense without the remote. She will have something to focus on, and a reason to maintain her stand, while you focus your energy on brushing or buzzing her coat or clipping her nails or whatnot.
- You could even use it as a “zen enforcer” by teaching your dog that something that is usually extremely reinforcing and an encouraged behavior sometimes must still be resisted anyway (that sometimes what seems like an available reinforcement is not available), and she should listen for your cue first. You could do this by telling your dog to leave it (or giving whatever your zen cue is) and then calling her over for a treat from you. Switching back and forth between your cue to take an available treat (I use “go ahead”) from the MM, and then cueing zen and clicking and treating for backing off the MM and coming to you for the treat. (For example: MM is on the floor five feet away from you. You are sitting in a chair. Dog naturally goes to MM to see if it will pay off. You say, “go ahead,” then press the remote. The MM beeps, and the dog takes her treat. She stares at the MM, waiting to see what happens next. You cue zen — “Leave it.” The dog is not expecting this. “Huh?” She says, turning to look at you, and you click and hold out a treat. She looks at the MM to make sure it’s not also offering a treat. It’s not. She trots over and takes the treat you are offering.)
Anyway, there are a lot of different uses you can put the MM to if you already are an experienced clicker trainer. You may very well already know several I haven’t mentioned that would be good as energy-savers for trainers with fatigue. (Please comment! I’d love to hear how other service-dog trainers use it!)
If you are not an experienced clicker trainer, I recommend carefully watching Dr. Yin’s DVD that accompanies the machine, and following the plan she has created, outlined also in a booklet. Then, when you are solid on all that, you can start getting creative.
Even if you are an experienced clicker trainer, watching the DVD is necessary. We only went partway through Dr. Yin’s MM protocol (very quickly, because Barnum already knew the behaviors) before I started freestyling a little to work on “leave Sharon alone while she is eating,” but I do plan to go back and finish up the protocol because I think it will help me get the most out of the machine.
The remote control is very easy to use. It has a hole that you can put a string or loop through, much like a clicker, but it fits very ergonomically in the hand, and requires very little pressure to use. It requires much less pressure than a box clicker, and even less than an iClick or similar button clicker. Also, because it lies flat on a surface, you can put it on a table or tray and just press it much more easily than you can with a clicker. (I have accidentally beeped a couple of times, but not as many as you’d expect.)
The machine also comes with a telescoping, standing target stick. I already had one of these, but you can never have too many good target sticks! (I have six now, plus two that I made when the Alley-Oop was off the market and the MM hadn’t yet been invented.) This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. For some service skills, such as bringing groceries in from the car, where the dog has to do different behaviors at different distances, it’s useful to have “stations” marked by target sticks so the dog can run between them. I would imagine that the same is true for some dog sports, like agility.
One note of warning to those with disabilities or conditions causing fatigue or weakness — the MannersMinder is pretty heavy, bulky, and awkward to lift and carry. The same properties that make it wonderfully “dog proof” in terms of preventing a dog from breaking into it or dumping it over also may make it challenging for some trainers. Eventually you could probably leave it in the same location for most training, and then carrying it won’t be an issue, but when you first start using it, it’s a consideration. It’s not horrible (for me), but depending on your needs and abilities, it’s something to consider. It’s a bit under three-and-a-half pounds, and it’s about the size (and shape) of an extra-large motorcycle helmet. I can lift it okay now some of the time, but a couple of years ago, I couldn’t lift anything ever, over two pounds. Often I couldn’t lift one pound.
If you’re noise-sensitive, or if your dog is, fair warning on that, too. This machine is loud and pretty unpleasant sounding. Barnum is not at all bothered by strange or loud sounds, so I didn’t even have to acclimate him to it. And I am able to tolerate the sounds fine, myself, most of the time now. However, again, from much of 2007 through 2010, I probably could not have used this machine because of the beeping, grinding, and other sounds it makes.
I hope this was useful. If you have a disability or fatiguing condition, do you use the MannersMinder? For what skills? What makes it better or worse than standard click/treat?
- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get to use these cool toys!), and Barnum, SDiT and Dog Who Stares at