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!

 

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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!

Three Steps To Solve Dog Counter Surfing

I think my parents are among the only dog companions who actually find joy in watching our Sam stand with his two front paws on the kitchen counter in search of dinner leftovers. For others, this behavior known as counter surfing is generally not welcome.

I have heard a lot of complaints about ‘bad’ dogs who persistently are in search of higher surfaces. But, before I talk about solutions, let’s talk about labeling these dogs. Are these dogs really being bad? (And what does bad really mean?) Or are they simply doing something very natural to dogs…using their senses to seek out food?

Let’s look at this from a behavioral analysis perspective briefly. Remember that all behaviors that are repeated, and even ststeps to stop your dog from counter surfing by Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnikrengthened, are occurring because there is a reinforcement history in place. And, also intermittent reinforcement – meaning sometimes a behavior works to get a valued outcome and sometimes it does not – is the maker of extremely strong, persistent behavior as it creates the gambling effect.

That being said, if there is a super smelly, super tasty piece of food on a counter, your dog is very likely to put its paws up onto the counter to try and get it. After all, in addition to the ultimate possible outcome of getting that food, your dog is also being reinforced by the activity itself. Think about the value in providing your dog with a food enrichment toy and how focused your dog becomes on working to get the food out. It is exercise for its mind and body, and it is downright fun for your dog.

With an activity that has the potential of bringing so much value to your dog, think now of your expectations that your dog naturally ignores the counter just because you want it to. Behavior, unfortunately, does not work that way.

Using aversive strategies, as I remind frequently in this blog and in my training, are not my choice for a solution. Firstly, as is the case in any training, the timing of your consequence needs to be immediately after the behavior and it also needs to be strong enough to weaken that behavior. But, also, teaching with aversives can have so many potential negative ramifications including that it can create fear, apathy or even aggression; it does not help to teach the learner what to do instead; and YOU can be come associated with those aversive consequences.

What is a better solution?

Thoughtfully Arrange The Environment

An antecedent is a setting event for a behavior to happen. A piece of steak or other tasty food within reach can absolutely be an antecedent for your dog’s behavior of counter surfing. If there is a piece of food on the counter, *then* you can predict your dog will put its front paws there.

Keeping in mind that your goal is for your dog to NOT have any practice of the unwanted behavior (and reinforcement for that behavior), think about what you can do to manage the environment so as to not set the behavior into motion to begin with. Some ideas include having your kitchen gated off so as to prevent those paws from being close to kitchen counters when humans are not watching, and providing your dog with another activity such as a food enrichment toy while you are preparing dinner.

Add No Fuel To That Fire

Additionally, it is important to have a plan that *if* mistakes happen (which may occur), that reinforcement is not available or greatly minimized for your dog’s behavior of putting its paws on the counter. A house rule of NO food left on counters is always good to have in a home with a dog prone to searching it out. Also, note that your attention to your dog after the behavior is set into motion may just be another reinforcer.

Teaching an Alternative Behavior

Remember that your dog is going to make a choice based upon where the value is for it. If you teach your dog that going to its mat, for example, is huge value because when it goes there great things happen….like a piece of that terrific meat lands between its paws, while you remove the value of counter surfing (by keeping food away) – which choice do you think it will learn to do if its goal is to get something of value? As your training progresses, you can put that mat behavior on an intermittent reinforcement schedule.

Building value for alternative wanted behaviors can also be captured by keeping your eye out for your dog making the choices you want to see, and reinforcing those decisions.

The great benefits to teaching this way are they are adding more enrichment to your dog’s life, teaching your dog what you want it to do, and strengthening your relationship.

 

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A Reminder About Behavior

I’m sharing one of my periodic reminders…whether you call it training or not, your pet is constantly taking in feedback from its environment (including you). Behaviors that “work” to get your pet something “it” values, will be repeated. It is that simple and that complex. If your pet continues to do something you do not like, think about what is setting that behavior into motion and what is reinforcing the behavior. Looking dog (or parrot of other pet) behavior problems from this perspective is the first step toward seeking the most positive, least intrusive solution.

the first step to solving dog behavior problems

 

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Six Reasons Why Your Dog Is Not Food Motivated

The other night, I met a lot of new faces at a dog event. I knew I would be making introductions so I brought my a baggie of my homemade dog treats, the ones I use in training that my clients and our Sam typically get a response of quick attention. But, at that outdoor event where there were dozens of dogs and probably several hundred people, some pets took my gift readily; others ignored the treats and focused on the environment instead.

Six reasons why your dog is not motivated by foodIt got me thinking about food and dogs. It seems I either hear a lot about dogs who live to eat and will do anything for a piece of – well, anything; or I hear about dogs who are not motivated by food.

Hmm. Let’s really give thought to that second scenario. How could it be that a healthy dog is not motivated by food? After all, food is a necessity to survive. In fact, scientifically speaking, the category of ‘food’ is considered a primary reinforcer (A primary reinforcer, sometimes called an unconditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus that does not require pairing to function as a reinforcer and most likely has obtained this function through the evolution and its role in species’ survival. Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism)

So, what then could cause a dog to turn its nose at food?  There are a number of reasons. I have some of them below.

  1. There is something medically wrong.

Possibly it could be a sign of an underlying medical issue, including that your dog has a sensitivity to something in what you are feeding it. If your dog normally eats what you are giving it, and suddenly refuses it in the same situation, it is time to consult your veterinarian.

  1. Your dog is scared or over aroused.

In the case of this dog event, in addition to those dogs turning their heads away from my treats, some were hypervigilant, excessively panting, or showing other body language that told me they were anxious, alert, and stressed.  A medically healthy dog’s willingness and interest in food tells us a lot about its emotional state. That turning away from treats (and other body language) is a symptom that the dog is not feeling safe or that the dog is in an extreme state of ‘eustress’, which is stress caused by positive excitement that still manifests as arousal. An example of this is the dog that is pulling at the end of its leash to get to pool of water, completely ignoring its handler. By putting their dog in an environment where their dog is reacting this way, the handler is doing a great job of teaching his/her dog the value of competing reinforcers from the environment (in other words, ignoring the handler on the other end of the leash).

  1. There are too many competing reinforcers.

This really speaks to my point above. If there is a strong, established history with competing reinforcers from the environment, which are more valuable to the dog than paying attention to you, it will be very difficult if not impossible for the skill of focusing on you to compete against what is happening in the environment. The foundational time you spend with lots and lots of positive practice teaching your dog how you want it to behave in different situations is extremely important (if you want to have a dog that has self control in a place with a great deal of distractions).

  1. History has taught your dog that food is a trap.

It is very, very important to remember that animals learn by consequences of their behaviors. If, in the past you have used food to lure your dog into doing something aversive (such as to come, when coming will result in something negative occurring; to get close to people it is afraid of; or to go into a crate where it will be locked up for the day); experience will have taught your dog that the presence of food comes before something negative. (Please read my article on classical conditioning.) Always keep in mind that it is what occurs AFTER something, that affects the emotional response of what occurs BEFORE (in classical conditioning); and also, through operant learning, animals learn whether or not a behavior is worth repeating or not. If a behavior serves to get the animal something of value (from the animal’s perspective), then that behavior will be repeated and even strengthened.

  1. You have taught your dog to ‘show me the money’.

It is so easy to inadvertently teach animals behaviors without realizing it. We can actually ‘teach’ stubbornness. How? Well, if you give your dog a piece of kibble and it refuses; and then you give it something better. You have just reinforced your dog’s decision to refuse kibble with the ‘something better.’

  1. You have been free feeding your dog.

Putting food in your dog’s bowl and leaving it there all day is a great way to devalue that food. You can read more about my thoughts on free feeding in this post.

There you have it. My top six reasons why your dog may NOT be motivated from food, and what you can do about it.

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Do Puppies Grow Out Of Problems?

Puppies chew. They play. They run. They get into things we do not want them to. They vocalize. They grab things on impulse. They also may show signs of backing away from unfamiliar things in their environment of signs of pulling toward other things.

Oh so cute they are! We love them for their adorableness but get so frustrated with their bad habits. But, won’t they grow out of those habits?

Do puppies grow out of problem behaviors? Yes and no. Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik answers.Well, not always.  

While it is true that biologically there are certain behaviors puppies are prone to do like destructive chewing for both teething relief and an outlet for young energy, what is important to realize is that every waking moment puppies – just like all animals – are learning from experience. They are learning constantly associations between behaviors and consequences. Quite simply, those behaviors that are serving to get something of value (from the perspective of the learner) are going to be ones that are repeated. AND if those behaviors get the animal something it values only sporadically, then you will see an even stronger, longer lasting, virulent behavior.

What does this mean for you as a puppy owner (or any pet owner)?

Well, take for example that unwanted chewing of shoes. While a puppy’s natural clock gives it a great need for chewing and destroying, the more times he gets positive reinforcement for that behavior, the more he is likely to repeat it. And often humans add to the value of that destructive chewing and destroying by giving the puppy attention or a game of chase when it has something in its mouth.

While puppies do go through developmental fear periods, if a puppy startles, moves back from or growls at something in its environment; or exhibits elevated heart rate, barking or digging when its human leaves the room, it is a mistake to think that behavior will just magically go away as the dog matures. In fact, those behaviors may more than likely strengthen and even generalize to other fear responses later. If, for example, a man in a white coat gives a puppy a painful injection then later other people in white coats may also cause elevated heart rates, etc. Remember that learning also teaches negative associations between behaviors and consequences/neutral and conditioned stimulus. This is why it is so important to teach young puppies early on that their world is a good place by exposing them carefully and positively to a wide range of environments, people, objects, sounds, and other stimulus (doing this by providing positive outcomes for your puppy and ensuring by watching its body language that it is feeling good in that moment).

Management is a critically important step in puppy training to help young minds grow in ways you want them to. By working to prevent those unwanted behaviors from being practiced (and building a reinforcement history for them) while also focusing on giving your puppy opportunities to practice wanted behaviors with positive consequences, you will be helping your pet and you to have many happy years together.

As a puppy owner, you have an important role in helping your puppy get its needs met in appropriate ways while building value for behaviors and habits you want to see more of…for the rest of your relationship together.

 

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Teaching Cues In Dog Training

I see it happen a lot. People ask their dog to do a behavior (give their dog a cue) and their dog does any number of things EXCEPT the behavior that is asked of it to do.

In dog training, why cues break down and tips for teaching strong cues.Why this happens can be any number of reasons.

Among those reasons:

In your dog training, the cue has been severely weakened by negative consequences occurring after a behavior (as an example, you call your dog to come from play and then lock him in a room by himself or you ask your dog to sit and if he is slow, then you push his rear end to the ground).

The cue was not ‘proofed’ meaning it was not taught in a variety of environments with a variety of criteria, and so what your dog may know in one situation does not generalize to ALL situations.

Doing anything BUT the behavior cued results in a bigger payday than doing the behavior that is cued.

In your dog training, the behavior that was intended to be cued has not been taught with clear criteria and fluency, and thus the cue meaning for the learner is different from the meaning you had intended. As an example, you may want your dog to ‘stay’ in a down position for five minutes until released but your dog gets up in five seconds. One of the many questions you should be asking yourself is, ‘does my dog really understand what I mean when I say stay’?  It is easy to forget that dogs do not speak human.

What is a cue anyway?

Scientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.

It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.

How do you create strong cues?

These are some general tips.

Knowing this about learning, the way to build huge value for cues is by first teaching the behavior that you want to see with the criteria you are looking for, by giving the behavior huge valued reinforcing consequences.

Since you are teaching an association between a cue and a behavior (and the behavior’s consequence), by teaching the behavior first, not only are you pairing the cue with the behavior that is of the criteria you are looking for, you are also pairing the cue with valued consequences that the learner learned through many repetitions. When is the time to add the cue? Add the cue when you can reliably predict that the wanted behavior is about to happen.

Always remember to teach new lessons in environments where your student can succeed so begin in an area with minimal distractions at a time when your dog will be motivated to give you attention.

After successful repetitions and lessons of your dog doing the behavior following your cue, if your dog does not do the behavior after your giving your cue, be very careful not to reinforce your dog’s unwanted choice. Instead, pause and then cue again. If your dog still does not do the behavior after several tries, that is feedback to you as the teacher that you need to go back a step in teaching the behavior. You can also practice being careful not to reinforce your dog for doing the behavior when he does it without the presence of your cue. This is called teaching stimulus control, meaning you are teaching your dog that he will ONLY get reinforced for doing the behavior when cued DURING active training.

Another note about cues is that they should be short and distinct.

Oh yes, and learning AND teaching should be fun!

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