Stopping Unwanted Pet Behaviors

I get asked a lot when I talk to people about focusing on what they want their pets to do, “But what do I do to tell my pet NO when he is doing something I don’t like?”

Why saying NO isn't the best solution for solving dog behavior problems. Dog training tips from Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA.Here is the thing about that question. First of all, while your dog may or may not momentarily stop what it is doing when you are saying NO, if you are needing to continue to use that word, then it is not solving your problem.

There are many reasons why I do not like using that word. Those reasons include that while NO may stop the unwanted behavior in the moment, it does not give your pet any information on what you would like for him to do instead. Additionally, using aversives has the potential for creating apathy, fear, anxiety and even aggression – and you will become associated with those aversives. As the bad behavior police officer, you may also end of teaching your dog that it should not do the unwanted behavior in front of you. NO also doesn’t do much for fostering a love of learning.

Another thing to keep in mind is that constantly, living beings are making choices based upon where the value is for them. If the behavior serves to get the animal something of value (to the animal) – meaning the behavior is followed by something the animal values – then you will see more of that behavior. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance: Learning & Behavior, fifth edition)

So, if the reinforcement for doing the behavior outweighs the negative of your punishment, your pet will continue to do the unwanted behavior…just possibly when you have got your back turned or are in another room.

You may also be following your word ‘NO’ with a redirection to a different behavior that has a history of reinforcement, and so you are inadvertently reinforcing the unwanted behavior.

Let’s also think about the teaching perspective from a human standpoint. Let’s say you are doing a task at work, and your boss reprimands you, simply telling NO, throughout the day. Does that feedback tell you what you need to do better to earn your boss’ praise? Over time with enough NOs, do you think your performance will continue to break down or will you be more motivated to succeed? I can tell you from first hand experience, I have both worked for people who have been on the look out to find faults and for people who have been on the look out to find strengths. For the first kind of supervisor, somehow, things continue to keep going wrong but in situations where I’ve worked for the later kind of supervisor, I have excelled.

So, what is a pet owner to do when a pet’s behavior is not acceptable?

First of all, step back from the situation for a moment, catch your breath and instead of blaming your pet for it simply doing what works in the moment to get its needs met, ask yourself what YOU can do differently to help your pet succeed.

Since, each practice of a behavior is highly likely to be building that behavior’s reinforcement history (and we know that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated), ask yourself what you can do to set up the environment so that your pet doesn’t have an opportunity to practice the unwanted behavior.

Think about what needs or wants that behavior helps your pet to meet, and behaviors you can teach (with a high rate of reinforcement) that will help your pet to get its needs and wants met in acceptable ways. Then teach those behaviors that will help your pet to succeed in your world. And remember, that while you are teaching those behaviors, to think about what management or arrangement of the environment should be in place to prevent the unwanted behavior from occurring.

And, have a plan for if that unwanted behavior should occur, how you will avoid giving value to that behavior.

 

Stopping Puppies From Nipping At Ankles

The other day I was overhearing a woman giving advice to another woman on her puppy’s naughty and very irritating behavior of biting at her ankles and pants when she walks. The advice was to yell at the puppy (take pants out of the puppy’s mouth) and tell the puppy to sit when it happens.

tips for stopping your puppy from nipping at your ankles by Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KAHmm, here is the thing. Usually when I hear people talk about ‘trying’ to solve that behavior problem in that way, they keep having to yell at their puppy because the puppy does not stop doing the behavior.

Why? Well, remember, animals are always using behavior as a tool to get a consequence of value to them. If a behavior is reoccurring, then that behavior is working for the animal. In this case, the potential list of valued consequences for the puppy or dog could be among other things attention, mental and physical stimulation, or sensory stimulation (having pants in his mouth).

Generally speaking, although each dog is an individual, herding dogs are more genetically wired to do this but any dog or puppy can. Among the many dogs in which I have seen the nipping at ankles and pants behavior were a puppy vizsla, german shepherd, labradoodle, great dane, and just this past weekend, a puppy King Charles.

In each situation, I was able to stop the unwanted behavior by focusing on teaching the puppy more acceptable behavior choices instead.

Why isn’t punishment enough to stop behavior?

Before I write about what I did to modify behavior, I wanted to address why scolding a puppy for this (or any unacceptable behavior) is not your best solution. For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing the behavior (meaning, later on will go back to doing the unwanted behavior) then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your body may actually be of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the nipping at your ankle is SO valuable to your puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.  Another possibility from my example above is that, if you have taught ‘sit’ as a behavior that gets your dog lots of positive reinforcement, then asking your dog to sit immediately after your yelling and removing his mouth from your pants, can become a reinforcer for nipping at your ankles.

On the other hand, if your yelling at him does work to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of your puppy’s unwanted behavior, then I’d have to ask, at what cost? It most certainly does not teach your pet what he should do instead. Just a few of the potential negative ramifications of using an aversive teaching strategy are that it can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression and escape/avoidance behaviors. Punishment requires escalating the intensity in order to maintain that suppression, and ultimately the teacher then becomes associated with those aversives.

Puppies, dogs, even birds and other animals did not join our lives inherently knowing what behaviors are and are not acceptable to their human companions. Those are things we need to teach them with fairness.

Solving nipping at ankles

Okay, so let’s look at how to solve the problem in the most positive way.

Firstly, with every behavior it is important to look for two things – what is happening in the environment to set the ankle/pant nipping behavior into motion in the first place and what is the immediate consequence of that behavior that is maintaining or even strengthening it. Then, think about what you can do to prevent practice of that behavior (and getting reinforcement for it) while also building value or teaching a different, more acceptable behavior with lots of positive reinforcement.

With each puppy it can be different. If your puppy is likely to go for your pants or shoes during play, make sure that you have acceptable toys in hand to direct your puppy to playing with them instead of focusing on human legs. I like to engage in constructive play with puppies meaning I am teaching behaviors and self control through play….for example, when they sit, then the toy moves. If you can’t be actively engaged with your puppy (but always you are actively supervising), then another alternative is an interactive toy that keeps his attention like a food puzzle toy. And if active supervision is not an option at that time, then the best place for your puppy is a confinement area like a crate or x-pen so as to prevent your puppy from engaging in unwanted behaviors.

If your puppy tends to grab your pant leg as you walk, think about what you want to do and focus on that, but before your puppy grabs your ankle (because with each practice of grabbing your ankle, your puppy is gaining a reinforcement opportunity for the unwanted behavior). I will slow down as much as needed for that particular puppy and will even begin with marking (with a verbal ‘yes’ or click) and reinforcing the puppy for standing at my side while I am stationary, and continue to mark and reinforce being at my side with his head up as I move. I’ll only gradually move quicker as the puppy tells me through his ability to continue to walk at my side with his head up, that he is learning the behavior I want to see. If at any time the puppy goes to bite my ankle, I become a tree so as to avoid giving any reinforcement for the unwanted behavior; and then, I adjust my plan to go slower so as to help the puppy succeed.

My challenge to you is this: Instead of thinking in terms of what your pet is doing that is bad from your perspective, think about what that behavior is getting him and what you can teach him to do instead. And, as always, have fun!

 

 

Dog Telephone Etiquette

The other day, someone was complaining to me of how her dog really gets her mad when she is on the telephone. It seems that as soon as she picks up the receiver, he begins to bark and pace at her feet, which makes it very difficult to focus on her conversation.

“What do you do when Hank does that,” I asked.

“I immediately tell him no but he does not listen. Sometimes I will push him away or I will get him a toy to divert him,” was her answer.

Whenever a problem like this arises, it is always important to remind yourself that behavior always occurs for a reason. And if it is repeated, then it is being reinforced by something in the environment.
dog telephone etiquette, stopping dog attention seeking behaviors I have been taught to look at behavior through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis, a systematic approach to solving behavior problems that involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

In this woman’s circumstance, the antecedent is her picking up the telephone receiver; the behavior is her dog barking and pacing; and the consequence to her dog is her attention and/or being given a favorite toy.

When you look at it this way, can you see how that barking and pacing behavior is getting reinforced? And how her picking up the phone has actually become a learned cue (we call that a discriminative stimulus) to bark and pace in order to receive that reinforcement?

Here is how I’d write that out:

A:           Mary picks up the telephone receiver
B:           Hank barks and paces at her feet
C:           Mary gives Hank attention and a favorite toy

Prediction:  When Mary picks up the phone receiver, Hank will bark and pace more often to get Mary to give him attention and a favorite toy.

Once you see that, developing a strategic plan to modify Hank’s behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way becomes clearer.

There are so many possibilities. Antecedent change is probably going to be the most effective here because, let’s face it, once Mary is on the telephone it is going to be difficult for her prevent Hank from building upon his reinforcement of that behavior.

A few suggestions for antecedent change strategies include: Mary could give her dog a favorite toy whenever she picks up the telephone AND BEFORE Hank begins the problematic behavior; or she could teach Hank a reliable sit or down and stay with a huge reinforcement history and then ask Hank to do one of those behaviors after picking up the phone AND BEFORE he begins the barking and pacing.

She should also have a plan in place in the instance that she cannot prevent the unwanted behaviors from occurring, so as to at least minimize the amount of reinforcement Hank receives. With a portable telephone, she can stand up and turn her back to him for example after the behaviors begin.

These are just a few ideas for solving this. When you look at behavior in the context of its environment, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet and your pet’s behavior; and it allows you to develop solutions that not only help your pet to succeed but strengthen your relationship as well.

 

Can I be of further help to you and your dog? Please contact me!

Who Is Training Whom?

My dad loves to share stories of Sam’s brilliance…and keen sense of hearing. The two buddies often travel together to the store. My dad says he can’t leave without Sam because Sam knows right away when dad is getting ready to leave and comes running to go with him, waggling his tail and holding a toy.

Who is training whom?Hmm. I thought it’d be fun to take a closer look at this. Remember, living beings learn by the consequences of a behavior and it is those consequences that predict the future rate of the behavior. For any behavior to continue and even strengthen, something in the environment is reinforcing it.

Let’s put our Applied Behavior Analysis hats on for a minute and do a functional assessment of the environment from each perspective. A functional assessment involves looking at the specific measurable
behavior within the context of its environment including the Antecedent (setting event for the behavior), the Behavior, and the Consequence of the behavior. In doing an assessment, always begin by writing down the Behavior we are analyzing, then fill in the A and C.

1. Focusing on my dad

A:         My dad announces he is going to the store

B:         Sam exhibits ‘wanna go’ behaviors (immediately perks up, runs to grab one of his toys     and then comes back to my dad with his whole body waggling

C:        Dad gets Sam’s leash and takes him to the car (there actually could be a second ABC here if I tightened this up)

Prediction:  When my dad announces that he is going to the store, Sam will exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors more frequently to produce the outcome of getting to go to the car.

2.  Focusing on Sam

A:         Sam is laying on floor in the kitchen

B:         Dad announces his excursion

C:        Sam exhibits his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

Prediction: When Sam is laying on the kitchen floor, my dad will announce his excursion more to get Sam to exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

It looks to me like both Sam and my dad are doing a fabulous job of reinforcing the behavior of the other. They are great teachers. I taught them well.

 

Can I be of help to you and your pet? Please contact me

A Different View On Dog Behavior

Someone shared with me the other day of her frustration she was having with her dog. It seems her dog has a favorite pillow in her bedroom she keeps on the ground and as soon as she goes in there with her dog, Fido lays on it.  She keeps yelling at her dog when Fido goes to his spot, and he does come off willingly but his behavior hasn’t stopped. It’s very frustrating for her.

tips for solving dog behavior problemsI thought I’d share some of what I shared with her, as it is pretty relatable if you change ‘pillow’ to any other object.

So, why doesn’t this women’s dog get the fact that she does not want him on her pillow? Why does he continue to choose to go there every time they go into the bedroom together despite the fact that he gets yelled at when he goes there?

My background is in learning to solve pet issues in the most positive, least intrusive ways by looking at it objectively, visibly, and measurably through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a systematic approach to modifying behavior by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?

So, to begin with this situation, we need to stop and look at things from her dog’s perspective. We know that behavior is simply a tool to get an animal a consequence of value to that animal, so, instead of becoming frustrated with Fido for just doing what works to get him something he wants, let’s think about what those consequences could be that are maintaining and strengthening the behavior of laying on the pillow (scientifically speaking, he is receiving positive reinforcement for this).

A few possible consequences could be sensory stimulation (the feeling of softness) or attention from Fido’s owner (when he lays on the pillow, she calls him to come off and sometimes may do something else with him that she thinks will divert his attention away from the pillow).

We also know that the antecedent to Fido’s getting on the pillow is his walking into his owner’s bedroom with her when the pillow is on the floor. But also, some other contributing factors (we call these distant antecedents) may be: Fido generally does not receive much attention during the day, the home has all hard floors with no other soft options on the floor. And additionally, we know that Fido does not go into that bedroom by himself.

The ABC analysis for this situation would be:

A (antecedent):  Proximity to pillow when owner is present
B (behavior):  Fido gets on pillow
C (consequence):  Owner’s attention, sensory stimulation

Prediction:  When the owner is present, Fido will get on the pillow more to get his owner’s attention and sensory stimulation.

When you break it down like this, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet’s ‘bad’ behavior.

Looking at that situation then, there are choices to make. Altering the consequence so that the learner is not getting reinforcement for the unwanted behavior is very important, but doing that alone does not help to teach the animal what it can do instead to get reinforcement.

Actually in this case, because it would be difficult to prevent reinforcement for the behavior once it is set into motion, a better solution would be to focus on the antecedents so as to prevent practice of that behavior (because practice with positive outcomes builds strong behavior).

Brainstorming, some possible ideas for solutions (using the most positive, least intrusive strategies) include:

1. Moving the pillow to a higher surface
2. Getting a plushy dog bed or other soft area and building great value for Fido to go there instead
3. Have high value puzzle toys or other activity available in the bedroom that Fido will want to engage in
4. Teach Fido to do other behaviors than laying on the pillow, when in the bedroom

To build value for the last three ideas, I’d remove or move the pillow while teaching and building huge value for the wanted habits so that over time, those behaviors are the ones Fido will choose to do.

When you modify behavior in this way, you are also enriching your dog’s life and strengthening your relationship with it. Those are two great reasons to see things differently.

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Positive Reinforcement In Dog Training

Just a brief reminder about behavior…teaching using positive reinforcement is not about bribing, and most certainly is not about force. Scientifically speaking, positive reinforcement is a consequence of a behavior that either maintains or strengthens it. As trainers, we are using positive reinforcement to build value for a behavior by pairing it with something the learner values. To be used effectively in teaching new behaviors, that reinforcement should be delivered contingently (meaning ONLY if the behavior occurs) and contiguously (meaning very closely following the behavior.) In this way, you are teaching your student this: WHEN I do THIS, THEN THIS positive outcome will happen.

dog training with positive reinforcement

How To Create New Reinforcers

Since my focus is on training and modifying behaviors in the most positive ways, I am always thinking in terms where the value is for the learner because the way in which you build value for a particular behavior, is by having that behavior followed by something the animal wants. This is teaching with positive reinforcement.

using positive reinforcement in dog trainingAnd that Awesome List as I like to think about it is ever changing. At one time of day your pet may value resting while at another time your pet may value a game of chase. The list could include the opportunity to go outside, food items, toys, attention, sensory stimulation, even distance from something aversive (although for this post, I am going to focus on the positive).

While food is good for shaping exercises because it can be delivered and eaten quickly for faster timing, having a variety of reinforcers to choose from in any particular training scenario makes you unpredictable and more engaging for your pet. Not knowing what cool thing is going to happen but knowing that SOMETHING great is going to happen as a result of doing a behavior sure can help to keep your student in the game.

You actually can create more reinforcers from the reinforcers already in your list. How? Using classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what comes BEFORE it. Having said that, with enough pairing of the presentation of a toy, for example, before the presentation of a valued leash, over time, your dog will come to value that toy because it has become associated with the leash. (Show your dog a frisbee – you do not need to play a game, just show the frisbee and put it down, and then take out the leash.)

Experiment at home and see how you can create new reinforcers. The opportunities are endless!

 

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

 

 

Realize That Each Dog Will Learn Differently

I was reminded again the other day, the importance as a teacher of recognizing that different animals learn differently, have different thresholds for frustration, and different values of reinforcement. That recognition and application to the lesson at hand can very well be what either helps and animal succeed…or fail.

10-06-learn-smI was demonstrating the beginner self control game that I have taught to dozens of other dogs, in different circumstances. Here is a link to a description of that game. Basically, you are teaching a dog without any words that *if* it persists in going after food in your hand, *then* the consequence is that the hand remains closed. However, *if* the dog moves away from the hand, *then* the hand opens and *then* the dog gets that valued prize.

Many dogs *get* this concept fairly quickly but this dog is not one of those statistics. The presentation of the food in my closed first near to his head was just too much stimulus for him. He is a dog with an extremely low frustration threshold and an extremely high drive for food. He was becoming so aroused that he began jumping, pawing, mouthing, and panting.

Teaching him by following the same steps as I taught other dogs simply was not going to work in this case. If I had continued, I would have continued to set us both up for failure. So, we stopped. My clients and I talked for a few minutes, then they did some practice of showing me his ‘place’ behavior and I did some hand targeting with the dog.

When I went back to the self control game, this time the dog was sitting and I held my hand with the food a few feet from his face. This time he was able to succeed, for a very short time in the beginning, of staying in position before I marked that behavior with ‘yes’ and gave him a treat. We very quickly were able to proceed with my moving my food hand closer (marking and treating him for staying put) to his face with success by making that one small adjustment. AND, with each success, there comes more success with more practice and positive outcomes.

It was a great lesson in teaching. Always remember, just as in a school classroom where all children learn differently, there is no size fits all when it comes to dogs (or any animal). Some have lower tolerances for frustration and you need to adjust your reinforcement schedule or difficulty, to help them succeed. Others need further distance from or environments with fewer distractions. Some dogs may be highly motivated by a game of tug for a reinforcer and other dogs would have zero interest in that opportunity. As your pet’s teacher, a big part of your role is continually monitoring it all. If your pet does not understand what it is you are teaching and loses interest in the training, stop, analyze your training and come up with another strategy.

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Who Is Training Whom?

Just for fun, kind of/sort of, do you live with a skilled human trainer? I remember once hearing Susan Garrett say that anytime two animals are living together, one is always training the other.

Do you want to stop your dog from doing problem behaviors? Here is another way of looking at the solution.What exactly does this mean? Well, we all are learning from consequences. It is never all one sided.

Let’s look at this scenario. If your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting in your couch watching tv, and you respond by talking to your dog, petting it, or getting it a treat, THEN one way of looking at it is that you have just provided your dog with positive reinforcement for bumping your leg. In other words, the immediate consequence of your pet’s behavior is something your dog values and something that has a high likelihood of strengthening the future rate of that behavior.

Applied Behavior is a systematic approach to looking at (and solving) behavior problems in terms of the environment that surrounds it. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog bumping a leg) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

In the above case, this could be a simplified functional assessment.

Antecedent:      Human sits on couch
Behavior:           Dog bumps human’s leg
Consequence:    Human gives dog attention, a scratch, or a treat

Looking at it this way, it is easy to see that there is a very good reason your dog has for bumping your let.

But, how then can I say that your dog is training YOU? Let’s reverse this. Remember that behaviors that are followed immediately with something of value TO THE LEARNER, are behaviors you will see more of in the future. What are some potential consequences in this scenario that are of value to you (being the ‘human’), that are maintaining the strength of ‘your’ behaviors?  I can venture to guess it could possibly be your dog wags its tail or another behavior that gives you a positive feeling, or it could be that your dog will stop bumping you (temporarily). This is the way that functional assessment would look.

Antecedent:      Dog bumps human’s leg
Behavior:          Human gives attention to dog or a treat
Consequence:   Dog wags its tail or leaves human alone to go eat treat

So, you see, no matter how you look at it, you are both training each other. The key is to understand this learning process and then brainstorm strategies for changing this up so that the behavior you DO NOT like is not being practiced and not being reinforced, while another behavior that is acceptable is taught and reinforced heavily. (Think: instead of bumping your leg when you sit down to watch tv, what you would like for your dog to do instead…then go teach it!)

Training Should Be The Highlight Of Your Pet’s Day

This past weekend, I spent a phenomenal two days learning from world renowned and respected dog trainer, Denise Fenzi. Denise is an incredible handler and teacher who uses a deep understanding of dogs, clarity and fun in building strong and reliable behaviors.

“Training,” she reminded us at the outset, “should be the highlight of your dog’s day.”

4 tips for making dog training the highlight of your pet's dayThat is such a powerful statement that gives much to think about. How often it is that people tell me their pet will only do what they want when they have food in their hands, but even then, their dog may check out of the lesson. Why does this happen, how can you instead make training fun and stimulating so that your dog will want to be an active participant in your classroom?

Let’s put this into human perspective for a minute. In what environments are you most stimulated to want to learn and excel? What are the traits of a teacher who instills in you a genuine love of learning? Are you more engaged when you are forced to do so or are doing so out of a sense of obligation, or are you more inclined to pay attention when it is your choice and you are greatly reinforced for your actions? Are you more apt to want to push yourself toward goals when those goals seem completely out of reach and the road to achieve them is very unclear, or do you work harder when you can see a path and you experience smaller achievements along the road?

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a dog living with an animal who speaks a foreign language, often keeps the rules hidden until you break one, and may simply expect you to know what they mean when they tell you to do something. It really does amaze me sometimes at how much our dogs are capable of learning from us under often very difficult learning environments.

As your dog’s handler, owner, teacher, and caregiver, every interaction you share with your pet is one that is capable of either strengthening or breaking down your relationship. Remember that every time your pet has a positive experience with its environment including getting something it values as a result of its behavior, your pet is learning to associate good stuff with that behavior…and if you are part of that consequence, then you can become super awesome from your dog’s point of view.

I digressed for a paragraph. Okay, so let’s think about how YOU can make training the highlight of your dog’s day. These are a few thoughts to keep in mind.

Four Tips For Improving Your Dog Training

Your mindset counts. When you go into training, is your focus on ‘making’ your dog do a certain behavior, forcing your dog to do what you want, or is it about having an awesome few minutes with your dog where you are both left wanting more?  Often when teaching obedience behaviors (such as down, sit, stay, or leash walking) people tend to speak in more monotone or forceful tones, be more rigid, and smile less. However, when teaching trick behaviors people tend to smile more, speak in different tones, and even laugh some. The truth of the matter is that behavior is behavior. If you think about teaching leash skills or stay in the same way that you think about teaching roll over, both you and your student will be in a different frame of mind.

Incorporate fun and your dog’s Awesome List into your training. Speaking of changing your mindset when teaching controlled behaviors, Denise Fenzi teaches incorporating games into heeling exercises. After a good step or two in position, the handler can take out a tug toy, cue the dog to run around a cone, or toss a ball for example. Woaza does that build value for the wanted behavior! I’ve written about play numerous times on this blog. I love to use it in training because it has such potential for revving up the value of the wanted behavior I am teaching. It is the Premack Principle at its best. If you are unfamiliar, the Premack Principle basically states that the more probable behavior (like chasing a ball) will reinforce the less probable behavior (like sitting and staying).  Remember that it is the consequences that make behavior more or less probable in the future, so to strengthen behaviors it is important to teach animals the contingency between their behavior and the valued consequence that comes immediately after the behavior. Therefore, knowing what your pet values is an important step toward positive training. I call this the Awesome List and wrote a post about it.

Train in an environment where your pet can focus on you and the lesson. Remember, your pet is constantly making choices based upon where the value is for it. If you are trying to teach your pet in a place where the environment has way more value than your lesson, you will not win and you probably will end up teaching your pet to ignore you while you end up being frustrated. In these cases, you may end up resorting to punitive strategies to force your dog back into giving you attention but anytime you teach with aversives, you get an animal who will only work to the level it needs in order to avoid punishment, who may become fearful or even reactive, and who will come to associate you with those negative experiences.

Break your lesson down in small chunks. As your pet’s teacher, it is your job to help your student succeed. Teaching a behavior in too big of steps, can make it too difficult to learn and when this happens your pet may become frustrated, and begin to bark or simply check out. Always think about how you can teach the behavior in the simplest way so that your pet can succeed and you can succeed. Shaping is a training strategy that involves teaching behaviors by breaking that final ‘target’ behavior down into smaller increments known as successive approximations and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until the final target behavior is learned. It is like the hot-cold game we played as a child and it is a lot of fun.

Are you ready to make your dog’s day? Great, time to go train!

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