Distractions As Reinforcers

Grass to sniff. A yard to run around. Dirt in which to dig. A human taking the leash means walk time!  People who move around and give lots of attention. Ugh, what do all of these have in common? They get many tails wagging and they have the potential to be major sources of dog handler stress.

…but they don’t need to be your enemy. In fact the opportunity to do all of those things can actually be an asset to your teaching and strengthening of wanted behaviors.

Distractions can be used as positive reinforcement in dog training to build value for behaviors. Certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, explains.How so?

Looking at the science

On a higher level, remember, it is consequences that drive the future rate of a behavior. If an animal’s behavior serves to get it something that the animal values, then that behavior will continue and even strengthen. This is called operant learning or conditioning and the behavior is being reinforced. Additionally, classical conditioning is a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus. In other words, what happens AFTER something affects the emotional response to what happens first. If I gave my dog a piece of meat immediately after showing him a clippers, with enough repetitions, over time my dog would begin to think, ‘Yay, a clippers!’, just at the sight of them.

I will throw out one more piece of scientific jargon here. The Premack Principle states that a high probability behavior will reinforce the less probably behavior, and this does not always have to be positive, just more probably. As an example, going out to train animals or meet with someone is a higher probability behavior for me than writing this post; and I know that when I finish this, that I can go for a walk, which I would much rather do on this beautiful day. Therefore, I am more probable to get this done quickly to be able to go upstairs, change my clothes and be on my way.

How does this relate to training?

Understanding these concepts is very important. Teaching an animal to do a wanted behavior in the most positive and least intrusive way, do it more, and do it precisely as you would like for it to look is not about forcing or controlling your dog or pet. It is about knowing what YOUR pet values in life, and then controlling the environment of the classroom and controlling the consequences of behavior to give you as teacher and your pet as student the best opportunity for success. It is not about you being the awesomeness police, barricading your pet from dirt, grass, toys and other people. It is about teaching your pet that the opportunity to dig, smell, chase, play, and be petted by strangers is gained by first listening to and doing something you ask it to do.

Do you want to go outside?
Awesome! Ask your dog to do a behavior it knows first.

Can you walk a step or two by my side?
Super! Let’s go sniff the fire hydrant!

Do you want to play a game of fetch?
Can you sit in front of me and give me eye contact? Terrific, chase the ball!

The list can go on and on.

Something to be careful of however, is HOW valuable or stimulating something is to your dog in that moment. Remember that your goal is to help your dog to succeed. If your dog is so focused on the stimulus in his environment that you will fail big time by asking your dog to do something at that time, then you are too close to the stimulus and/or you simply have not worked up to that level of learning. If a dog has no understanding of the concept of self control, meaning it pops up quickly from a cued sit or immediately bursts toward something it wants, then expecting it to wait until released to do something or to go to something is not realistic.

This is why it is important to begin the teaching process of behaviors in environments with minimal to know distractions, then practice in different environments, gradually increasing the level of difficulty as your pet can succeed.

Near me is a small shopping center. There is a strip of grass that separates its parking lot from the street where apparently many dogs frequent. It is a very HIGH value place for our dog, Sam, to want to sniff; and a great place to practice walking by my side. I began at a distance away where Sam could walk at my side and practiced reinforcing him with food for that, gradually coming closer to the grass. And, after being able to walk with me, I would tell him, ‘let’s go sniff’ and run with him to his favorite spot. Yep, over time he was very attentive to being at my side around that grass!

However, if I had taken him to that spot without doing foundation work with him…and lots of it, before going there, chances are it would have been a major struggle to get him away from the grass and we both would have failed in those lessons.

If you take the time to work through lessons and teaching foundation skills, as well as building your relationship with your pet to give your pet plenty of reasons to want to listen to you, and build in these life experiences into your classroom – think of the fun you will have together, and the behaviors you will teach!

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

Tugging As A Dog Training Tool

I have been working on down/stay/release and recall this month with an awesome and super smart dog. (I know, not unlike lots of other dogs I have worked with.)

In training, I talk a lot about building value for behaviors by using reinforcing consequences that are of huge value to the learner (to the learner are the key words). For this sweet boy, tasty food like chicken and cheese are pretty great but tugging trumps everything.

And so, as I began teaching ‘release’ as the last part in the behavior chain of sit or down, wait, then release; I have been using the opportunity to tug a lot as the consequence to releasing on cue. As we have been building on this, I have been mixing things up though so he often will not know whether his getting up from a down and running to me will result in a good, short game of tug or a piece of tasty food or a short game of chase.

There are many directions I could take this post from here. I thought I’d write about tugging today because it can be a powerful tool in your reinforcement toolbox during training.

tugging with your dogFirstly, I’ll address a common statement. I have heard many times that tugging can make dogs aggressive or allows dogs to assert dominance over people.  Here is the thing. Dogs already have predatory energy. It is part of who they are, and tugging – properly, with rules – gives dogs a release for that energy.

Some Benefits of Tugging. There are many.

Tugging strengthens behaviors…and relationships. A few weeks back, I wrote about how classical conditioning affects emotional states and training.  With enough pairing of a release cue and an opportunity to tug, your dog will come to associate the release cue with the awesome fun, which will in turn mean that the stay will become associated with the positive emotional state of the release cue. Of course operant learning (meaning your dog is also learning that good consequences happen when he stays until released) is also at play. And likewise, with you on the other end of that tug toy, you will become associated with the fun opportunity to tug too, which adds to your dog’s reasons for wanting to listen to you. A double whammy of goodness!

Tugging is an outlet for redirecting inappropriate use of teeth. Tugging (again, properly with rules) not only gives dogs and puppies something appropriate to mouth, it is great exercise as well. And we know the benefits of exercise as it relates to behavior problems.

Distractions are less important. Dogs in lower arousal states will notice more of what is going on around them, and is more likely to register those distractions. Think about yourself, and how, when you are really focused on something that you are not thinking about your stressors.

Tugging properly with rules is great for teaching self control. When you teach your dog that the game starts with your cue, stops with inappropriate play, and ends on your cue, you are teaching your dog valuable skills in impulse control. And the great part is, your dog won’t even know you are in class!  He/she just knows it is all about having fun.

What are tugging rules?

Rule One
Tugging begins only when the human cues it. This means your dog will not start the game on his own by bringing you the toy or grabbing for it while you are holding it. I like to use ‘get it’ as this cue. As soon as I say ‘get it’, I present the tug and make it super enticing for the dog to want to play.

Rule Two
Your dog should drop the toy upon your cueing him.

To teach this, begin by giving your dog the cue (I use ‘get it’), and before your dog’s arousal heightens (after just one or two seconds), hold the toy firmly and still, say your release cue (I use ‘out’) and then present a very high value piece of food near his mouth. The second he releases his grip, mark that with a verbal cue like ‘yes’ or a clicker and give your dog the piece of food.  Later, keep your food behind your back until he let’s go and then give him the food…and you can also offer another game of tug. (Remember – to give your cue first to begin the game.)

Once you teach Rule Two reliably on cue, then you will need to proof Rule One, meaning, practice swinging the toy around and if your dog goes for it, the toy should be taken away. Only when you give the cue will the game begin. You can also ask for a control behavior first like sit, then release the sit with a cue and then say ‘get it.’

Rule Three
Game stops before your dog becomes over aroused and also if your dog’s teeth touch your hands. Stop the game with your out cue.

Short games of tug, between 3 and 10 seconds, will keep you both focused and will leave your dog wanting more.

Rule Four
Test all of the rules. Not following them means there will be no tugging. Period. But give your dog more opportunities to succeed. With consistency, your dog will learn the rules and you will have a great opportunity for mental and physical exercise, strengthening your relationship, and fun!

Rule Five
As you advance, teach your dog that it is controlled behaviors like sit or down that lead to more games of tugging. Teaching your dog to calm himself from arousal is a great skill.


Okay, now you’ve got the game rules. Now go out there and have fun!


To Help Your Pet Learn, Keep Clutter Out Of The Lesson

I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way.

distractions in dog trainingIn one of our labs about hands on experience teaching a behavior chain, Trainer and instructor Laura VanArendonk Baugh began with a sort of Wii game. She gave instructions at the very beginning. The game involved a foot pad with up, down, right and left arrows. On a large screen, arrows moved up and when one touched an arrow at the top, the contestants were told to tap the corresponding arrow on their foot pad. As the game went on, the movement got quicker and quicker. The winner had the highest number of correct foot taps.

Although Laura gave directions at the very beginning and asked if there were any questions, once the game began things got a little complicated. In addition to the moving arrows on the screen, there were other distracting lights in the background and people in the audience making noises. There was the added pressure of increased speed.

One of the contestants thought she needed to put both feet onto each arrow on the foot pad which required a tiny bit more time to do the behavior.  As the game sped up, people in the audience shouted guidance to them.

When it was done, we analyzed what had just happened and compared it to animals we train.

Performing the behavior of tapping their foot to the correct arrow on the pad when the arrows matched on the screen was a challenge with the distracting lights, and the difficulty rose as the speed of the arrow movement increased. When this happened, errors also happened more frequently. And, as errors began happening more quickly, some of those watching couldn’t help but shout out tips.

So, even with Laura having given clear directions at the beginning of the game, learners still had some pretty major hurdles to overcome and their ability to succeed waned as a result.

What does this have to do with training?

Well, for one, it was a great reminder to us of some of the factors that go into helping our animals succeed in our learning environment.

It demonstrated the importance of having minimal to no distractions when teaching new behavior skills. Focusing on learning is enough of a challenge. This includes environmental stimulus such as the presence of other dogs, and also trainer chatter. Remember, pets do not speak English so your verbally telling him what to do can complicate the classroom.

If we make our classroom too difficult and that causes errors, then our learner is practicing unwanted behavior. Additionally, it can cause frustration and lack of interest in the training.

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