Understanding Reinforcers

If you have been around me long enough, you have more than likely heard me talk about using clickers, verbal markers like ‘YES’, treats, toys and games in dog training. When used to strengthen behaviors we want to see, by definition those are all reinforcers because a reinforcer is a consequence that increases the rate of behavior.

understanding primary and secondary reinforcers in dog trainingBut, do you know the difference between secondary (also known as conditioned) and primary (also known as unconditioned) reinforcers?

Understanding Reinforcers

A primary reinforcer is something that automatically causes an animal to increase the rate of behavior. Its value does not need to be learned and is not dependent on other reinforcers. Food, water, sleep, and sex are examples because they fulfill biological needs for survival. When you are giving your dog a piece of food to increase the frequency of a behavior, you are using a primary reinforcer.

A secondary reinforcer is something that acquires its value after repeated associations with primary reinforcers. The word ‘YES’ or sound of a click are both secondary reinforcers. When presented to a learner without any prior history of hearing them, those sounds do not have meaning. They come to elicit an accelerated heart rate, alertness, salivation or other response after repetitions of those sounds coming just before the presentation of other valued stimulus.

It’s important to understand that timing matters. The less time there is between two stimulus, or a behavior and a consequence, the quicker and easier it is for the learner to build a relationship between those two. In other words, after you click or say YES, that treat should be delivered quickly afterwards.

Okay, so another logical question to ask then is if those secondary reinforcers can eventually be used without being paired with another reinforcer. The answer is yes…at least some of the time. If you stop pairing a secondary reinforcer with another reinforcer all together, eventually it may come to lose value.

But here is the awesome thing. You can (and should) continually create new reinforcers by pairing different valued stimulus together. The more variety you have to choose from in reinforcers, the more fun and enriching you make the lesson for your student. I wrote about how to create new reinforcers here.

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please be in touch

 

 

Teaching A Novel Behavior

Our dog, Sam, and I were looking for something to do on a gloomy day, and so I taught him to unroll a towel using shaping and clicker training, just for the fun of it. I video taped it to give you some thought in working with your own dog. There are so many benefits to teaching novel behaviors, or teaching any behavior in a positive way. Just some of the benefits include: success can build both your pet and your self confidence, it builds value for listening and being around you, is exercise for your dog, increases your dog’s (and your) problem solving skills, and more.

A pre-requisite to teaching this behavior is teaching nose targeting. Please click here to read how to teach that.

 

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

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!

 

 

Choosing Words For Training

I was asked the other day this question: “Does it matter if we refer to our pet by its species or its sex? Are “Good Dog!” and “Good Boy!” equal in esteeming and reinforcing good behavior?”

In dog training, does it matter what words you use to reinforce behavior? Certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik explainsI thought I’d write an answer to that, as it may be a question others have as well.

I am assuming that person was using those words both to let her dog know she liked her dog’s behavior and also to add value to her dog’s behavior so that she would see more of it.

Let’s first look at the function in training of using words to acknowledge a behavior. We call this using a marker. A clicker or other sound (or even another non-verbal signal) can be used as well. Moment marking training is very effective because it involves giving the learner very precise information that what occurred *immediately* preceding the mark is exactly what the trainer is looking for. If you are shaping behavior (reinforcing small steps or approximations toward a final behavior), you may mark those tiny steps with a click or word kind of like you’d play the child’s hot and cold game. You may also click in teaching simple behaviors like when a dog sits or you may mark a behavior for other criteria such as duration. That precision matters because within just several seconds time, you could be inadvertently reinforcing a different behavior if your timing is off. You can say ‘Yes!’ or click much quicker than you can deliver a piece of food.

Good markers then are distinct and short sounds that provide the learner with very specific feedback that *at that moment* the behavior was awesome. Having said that, then using two or more words that take longer to say may not be as effective because by the time a trainer gets through ‘gooood boy’, the dog may be on to doing another behavior. Another point is that, I have seen handlers who repeat ‘good dog’ over and over again. In terms of training, that is not specific enough information for the learner.

To use markers effectively, they should be used ‘as’ the behavior is occurring. No other stimulus should be present until AFTER the click or verbal word (so no reaching for your food until after you click).

Now, as for whether words matter, I’ll say the same thing I told my clients who taught their dog to come with a cue of ‘Buckeye’. Whether we are talking about a cue occurring before the behavior or a marker occurring after the behavior, the word itself does not matter. It is all in how you teach it.

You can build value for words by pairing them with things or activities your pet values. Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what occurs before. A click in and of itself does not have meaning; however, if you click and then give your dog a treat with many repetitions, over time, your dog will acquire the same type of reflexive response to the click as he with the treat.

So, in answer to that question, if I am training a specific behavior, I would not use either ‘good dog’ or ‘good boy’ but rather I would use either a clicker or a single syllable word like ‘yes’ and I would spend time teaching my student the value of the marker I am using.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Learning Should Be Simple

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dog training tips for helping pets succeed by making the lesson as simple and clear as possible.I love this quote. In its great simplicity, it speaks volumes for both effective teaching and learning. This, from a world famous, brilliant physicist known for his general theory of relativity and recognized with a 1921 Nobel Prize.

I think about this often when I am doing dog training and behavior consulting. A question foremost in my mind is always, ‘how can I help my student succeed with this lesson?”

If the lesson is too difficult student frustration can lead to poor motivation, and with poor motivation focus on the teacher can quickly evaporate. When that occurs, teaching – at least teaching what we WANT our student to learn – is often not effective.

It is important to remember that in order for us to teach a behavior and strengthen its future rate, we first need to ‘get’ the behavior to occur so that we can follow that behavior with a reinforcing consequence. I continue to remember observing in a two day class with reknown trainer Dave Kroyer a session where he was coaching another trainer on teaching her dog to put his nose in a hole of a scent box. There was a moment when her dog was not ‘getting it’ and began pawing at the box. Dave’s response was to pick the box up and ask the trainer what they could do to help her dog understand. The answer was to put the box on its side. With that small change, her dog immediate went to the open hole and placed his nose inside.

And, once you and your student have success, then you can build upon that success from there by incrementally adding to the behavior as your learner can continue to succeed.

What are some ways in which you can make your lesson plan as simple as possible but not simpler?

For one, begin teaching in an environment with minimal other distractions. It is hard enough to focus on learning something new. With stimulus going on around you, it is that much more difficult to focus. Please read this column I had written on the importance of decluttering the teaching classroom.

Break the behavior down into small steps or approximations, and reinforcing your learning after each behavior approximation toward the final behavior. This is known as shaping, and it is a lot of fun to practice. Please click here to read a past post about it.

Be aware of the importance of timing when it comes to teaching new behaviors. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.  Please click here to read more. The immediacy with which you can ‘click’ and mark a correct behavior is one of the reasons why clicker training is so effective.

Use reinforcers that are of value to your learner. Remember, it is the learner that gets to decide what is of greatest value to him/her and that can change throughout a day. Learners will always choose to do the behavior that gets them a consequence of the greatest value to them so plan ahead and make sure you’ve stacked the deck in your favor. You can read more in this post.

Tip For Solving Dog And Puppy Behavior Problems

I was standing and talking with a new client the other day as her puppy was at her feet. The deeper into our conversation we got, the more her puppy began moving around. A few minutes later, he jumped on her leg, grabbed her sweater, and then when she removed it from his mouth, he took interest in her shoe.

Her instincts were to tell him no and push him away. She very much wanted to know how she could teach him those activities are bad.

dog training tip on solving problem behavior issuesShe didn’t, however. And, instead, it was a great opportunity for an important lesson in behavior. I thought I’d share a little about what was learned.

Here is the thing to remember about behavior. (I know I keep repeating myself but it is important to keep it forefront.) It always happens to get a consequence. If the behavior reoccurring, then it is working to get the animal a consequence of value to him.

Okay, so before we go down that path, what is wrong with simply yelling at a puppy to tell him Bad boy when he has his mouth on a sweater or shoe that should not be there? For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing that behavior then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your arms and lets is actually of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the chewing on a sweater or shoe is SO valuable to that puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.

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. You can read more about punishment here.

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.

In this case, there were many things that occurred prior to the unwanted chewing behavior to set the occasion for that behavior. Those things are called Antecedents; and some potentially could have been lack of other opportunities to chew on appropriate materials, boredom, lack of exercise, lack of attention. But also, the consequence of the inappropriate behavior was fulfilling those needs – attention, play, sensory stimulation, etc. After all, no attention was given to him until he decided to put something into his mouth.

There are many ways to solving this. One way is management. When you cannot actively be involved with supervising, playing and/or training; a puppy who is crated with tasty chew toys or who is actively engaged in a puzzle toy is not interested in chewing on a sweater. A puppy who is tired from active training and exercise also has less value on seeking out that sweater and more value in resting.

And, another consideration…did I mention training?  You can teach your dog or puppy an incompatible behavior that he can do INSTEAD of the unwanted behavior with as much or greater reinforcing value as the unwanted behavior. Think of it this way. If your puppy or dog does not know (because you have not taught him) what behavior you want him to do when you are standing with him at your side, then is it fair to blame him for coming up with his own ideas?

During that meeting, I began reinforcing the puppy for laying down by giving him a treat when he was laying on the floor. Within minutes, guess which behavior he was choosing to do on his own? After awhile, I incorporated play as a reinforcer for his laying down. When he lay down, I clicked and released him to retrieve a toy. Wow, talk about building HUGE value for laying down! After talking in the hall, when we walked into another room, can you guess again which behavior he immediately did?

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!

 

 

How Crate Games Make Going Into The Crate Fun

I have been working with this Havanese puppy, Migo, on training him to go into his crate.  I did this by making the crate a hugely valuable place to be (from his point of view), by using clicker training and positive reinforcement.

You can see how much he enjoys crate games by how fast he runs back in. Since he is moving in so fluidly, it was time to begin adding a cue just as he is on his way into the crate.

Using Play In Dog Training

When you think about pet training and behavior management, do you also think about playing?

Think about it for a minute. Think about how much more engaged you are in an activity or a conversation (and tuning out the outside distractions) when you are laughing and being challenged.

Have you watched your dog or your parrot or cat when he is really focused on figuring something out?  I have seen dogs with reputations for jumping on their owners at kitchen counters, not even taking the time to look up when they are busy trying to figure out how to make food come out of a toy. And guess what else I saw in those dogs…tails wagging and wiggly bodies. Those are dogs that are having fun.

I have seen play described as ‘the vehicle by which children learn to relate to others, to solve problems and to regulate improve your dog training with playtheir emotions.’ Those are words to give you thought when it comes to effective teaching, learning and quality of life.

Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and author of Authentic Happiness, goes further and says play is one of three pillars of mental health – the other two being love and work.

Of course he is talking about human beings but non-humans have mental and physical needs as well.

There is such a long list of reasons why play is important to our pets. Just some of them include: release of energy, mastering new concepts, conflict resolution, gross and fine motor skill experiences, self control development and confidence development.

So, let’s bring this back to training. What are the benefits to including play as a reinforcing consequence for doing another behavior? Well, for one, it adds variety to the lesson if you keep your dog guessing as to whether sitting will get him a treat, a great chase, or an opportunity to tug. Games can be taken on the road. You may not have food available when you are out with your dog and he does just what you want him to do, but you sure can run the other direction or pick up a stick and throw it.  And, with all these awesome experiences, the side benefit is that your dog will come to associate you with those awesome experiences and that makes for even more awesome relationships.

Here are a few other ideas for incorporating play into training.

Sunday night I had a couple minutes and thought I’d work with our Sam on targeting and stationing (standing with his front two feet on a round platform). He had already eaten, and so was not at his optimal motivation level for food. Still, I had a student who was totally focused – even when I was using lower value food. How? After I clicked, instead of delivering his treat to his mouth I tossed it…and he ran to get it. Then he’d run back to the platform and I’d click and toss a treat in another direction. The speed he was moving was incredible and he had no notice that in the other room, my mom was cleaning up from a chicken dinner. The game of it (and the rapid rate of reinforcement) was what kept his focus.

I also love to create games and then incorporate behavior skills that I have taught him (and others) to strengthen those skills. It is the Premack Principle at its best! (To learn more about the Premack Principle, please click here.) To tug with a toy, you can teach your dog that play begins when you initiate it (maybe you ask your dog to sit or do another behavior before giving the cue to tug); and that it stops when you give the cue. Embedded in a hide and go seek, you can practice the behaviors of sit or down/stay, release cue, coming when called, sitting at your feet and even waiting as you toss a treat on the ground before being release to get it.

Clicker training and shaping and play too when you think about it. Below are a few video clips to give you some ideas.

There are so many ways to incorporate play into your lesson plan. I’d love to hear what you do.

Remember, always have fun!

Habits Of Good Dog Training To Improve Shaping Skills

Training using shaping is teaching a behavior by teaching successive approximations or steps toward that final behavior. I wrote about shaping in a previous post. Here are some tips for improving your shaping skills.  To read my original post, please click here.

dog training tips to improve shaping

Dog Training Lessons From Dave Kroyer

I am always on the look out for opportunities to learn from experts in training through positive reinforcement. And I’ve got to say, the two days that I spent in Columbus at PosiDog taking a course from internationally renowned trainer Dave Kroyer were absolutely invaluable.

Dave Kroyer dog trainerDave is a judge, coach and competitor, with over 15 years of experience in the arenas of Schutzhund, Mondio Ring, French Ring Sport, Police K9, AKC Obedience, Agility, SAR, Nose Work and AKC Tracking. His also has combined 10 appearances as a World Championship Team member in IPO & Mondio Ring, in addition to multiple National and Regional podium placements.

While the class was about teaching scent work, because Dave focuses so much on foundational learning and teaching skills, it was about so much more…targeting, clicker training, timing, motivation, setting the animal up for success.

He reminded all of us that if we want our students to succeed, it is so important to begin at the very beginning. In training scent work, that beginning involves teaching your dog to be operant (learning from consequences), understanding moment marking (please see my last blog post about moment marking), and moving away from the reinforcer – all without a leash in an environment without distractions (or at least minimal). Dave may spend days or even weeks on these steps to make sure they are good and strong because he knows those skills will ultimately be the difference between a dog that will eagerly and without influence leave his handler to indicate the scent. As someone who trains dogs for law enforcement and the CIA, there is no room for error.

When you think about it, those concepts are important in just about anything that we teach our pets. In our busy lives, it is understandable that we want to find quick fixes to behavior issues. We want to be able to walk our dog down a busy street on a loose leash or to be able to call our dog and have him run immediately back to us in any circumstance, without taking the time to teach and strengthen the foundational skills needed first.

However, the reality is, by not spending that time what we are doing is setting ourselves and our pets up for failure.

Remember, to teach in the most positive way, we need to empower our students by allowing them to make their own choices – just making the choices we want them to make the most valuable for them; we need to teach with clarity; we need to set the learning environment up so that he will be motivated to want to learn; and we need to be willing to be patient, teaching those foundation skills and building difficulty only as our student can continue to succeed.

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