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!

Are You Helping Your Pet Succeed?

Albert Einstein quote about learning


Such a great quote. It reminds us, as our pet’s teacher it is our job to do what we can to help our pets to succeed. Ask yourself these questions:

Am I teaching in an environment where my pet is not too distracted?

Do I have high enough value reinforcers?

Am I breaking down the lesson into small enough steps?

Do I know what behavior criteria I am looking for?

Positive Reinforcement Consequences In Dog Training

Let’s talk about consequences.

That is, after all, the essence of how animals operantly 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.

positive reinforcement consequences in dog trainingThat is such a simple but very important concept to understand; and yet it is also one of the great complications in relationships because we inadvertently reinforce behaviors we do not like while forgetting to reinforce wanted behaviors all the time. Actually reinforcement for unwanted behaviors is all around if we do not manage the environment carefully enough.

Think about the contained dog who has learned that climbing a fence results in unbelievably awesome freedom to sniff flowers, greet strangers or play with other dogs. Do you think that dog will be more or less motivated to climb the fence in the future? What about the dog who has learned that bumping his human causes his human to get up and get treats? Or the dog who has learned that barking at the door gets the door to open and fun people to walk through? Or the bird who has learned that screaming gets humans to pay attention?

The list of examples for operant learning is endless. It is why we can say, so long as two living beings are together, one is always shaping the behavior of the other.

Training wanted behaviors

Let’s put this in the context then of teaching wanted behaviors. It is not enough to just talk about consequences in a general sense.

Clarity in teaching is how we help our learners to understand exactly what behavior it is that we are wanting to see. We build clarity by teaching in an environment where the animal can focus (with no to minimal distractions in the beginning), when the animal is motivated to learn, with small enough steps so as to help him succeed, and by providing immediate feedback following the behavior that tells our student, “YES” this is exactly what we are looking for and reinforcement is coming.

At a recent workshop I took from Dave Kroyer, he referred to this immediate feedback as moment markinig because it involves very precise timing of clicking (or using a verbal marker) within a second from when the wanted behavior is performed. And the quicker that the positive reinforcement is delivered after the behavior, the easier it is for the animal to learn the contingency relationship between the consequence and the behavior.

This is the beauty and the power of the clicker in training. (And since that workshop, I am using a lot more clickers in my work.) Clickers provide a very precise and quick tone without the fluctuations of human voice which means clear and immediate feedback for the learner (so long as the click sound is always followed by something of value to the animal).

Dave shared a statistic with us that learning can occur 50% quicker with a clicker for these reasons. And this ironically occurred just after a trainer clicked seconds late, accidentally marking the wrong behavior of her dog. Guess which behavior her dog repeated? I have seen that happen before also. A lot of behaviors can take place in a matter of seconds – a head turn, movement, tail wag to name a few – and whichever behavior occurs just before the click is the one that you are marking.

You can practice your timing without your learner present in a number of ways.

Here are a few ideas:

Watch tv and a video and watch for a specific word or action to click or mark verbally.

Drop a ball or small pieces (one at a time) of something and click or mark verbally the instant the piece hits the ground

When clicker training with your pet, always remember that you must always follow the click with something of high value to your student to keep motivation high.

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