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!

Tips For Teaching Your Dog Calm Greetings

Jumping on people is a common greeting of many dogs, but, while perfectly normal for a dog, most humans would prefer their pet keep all four paws on the floor. And especially if those paws belong to a dog or puppy that is going to grow to over 100 pounds.

Dog training tips for stopping a dog from jumping on people by Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBCI know I do a lot of reminding about this but it bears repeating. Remember, dogs are like every other living being when it comes to behavior in that they are constantly learning from their environment what behaviors to repeat and strengthen, and what behaviors to lesson. They make their decisions based upon where the value is for them…and that value is all about the consequences of that particular behavior. If a behavior works to get them something THEY value, then they will continue to do it. If the behavior DOES NOT get them something of value, the frequency of that behavior is going to lessen.

Dogs that continue to jump on humans who walk through the door do so because they are being positively reinforced for that behavior…whether humans see it that way or not. Scientifically speaking, positive reinforcement (R+) is simply a consequence of behavior that is added to the environment that increases the frequency of the behavior. As humans we do not get to decide what constitutes that R+ for our pets, but we can be keen observers to figure out what is happening immediately after a behavior that is of value to our pet so that we can make changes to do three things:

  1. Set the environment up so as to prevent our pet from practicing (and building a reinforcement history for) the unwanted behavior while
  2. Teaching and building huge value for an alternative and acceptable behavior we would rather our pets do and
  3. In the case that our pet does practice the unwanted behavior, we pay careful attention to NOT give any value to that behavior.

Let’s go back to this jumping greeting behavior.

Some of the possible reinforcers for that behavior can be: attention, humans that move and make noise, and release of energy.

The problem that many who have tried to ignore the unwanted behavior have discovered is that a jumping dog – especially a big dog – is pretty difficult to ignore, and with little dogs…well, let’s just say humans are very good at reinforcing little dogs for this greeting. Another problem is that often times there are some people who do not mind a dog jumping while other people do not like it at all. One of the reasons why ‘problem’ behaviors become so strong is because they are intermittently reinforced, meaning sometimes the behavior gets the animal something of value and sometimes it doesn’t. Gambling is a pretty tough habit to kick and that is exactly what this creates. This is why that three step process is so important to solving any behavior issue.

So, how can you prevent your dog from practicing the excited greeting to begin with? Management is very important. With a Great Dane puppy (and her family) I am working with, there is a hallway to their large kitchen/family room space where the puppy stays when her family is away. A gate at that entrance way prevents access to humans which allows for practice of humans ignoring her, staying or moving to the other end of the hallway until she can remain seated. One week of practice of this and her greetings were very different.

Another client taught his dog to station in a bed at the far end of a room, then practiced this with people coming to the door with a high rate of reinforcement, and then was able to practice teaching his dog to walk by his side to greet new visitors (and taught visitors to have calm entrances). The goal would be to practice this with visitors moving more quickly as the dog can continue to succeed.

Always remember, your dog does not do behaviors to be stubborn or bad. Your dog simply does what works for him to get something of value and was not born understanding the wants of humans. It is up to you as its teacher, to teach the behaviors you want to see more. And while you are doing it, enjoy the process!

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

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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Tips For Getting Out Of Show-Me-The-Money Cycle

Are you among the many dog owners who have a pet those goes into ‘Show me the money’ mode before deciding whether to do anything you ask?  It is such a common problem.

Why does it happen? Well, for one, humans are pretty good at holding food in their hand held in plain view when teaching their dog behaviors (so the student is being lured); and humans are also pretty good at responding to attention seeking behaviors by doing something deemed valuable by a smart dog – such as giving attention, a piece of food, or beginning a game of fetch.

Will your dog only listen when you have food? Here are some dog training tips.Humans are also pretty good at inadvertently teaching different meaning to cues (such as giving a cue for ‘sit’ and when the dog walks away to find an awesome toy,  is called back and given a treat upon arrival which is a multiple reinforcer for walking away instead of ‘sitting’ after the cue). In general, humans are pretty good at breaking down cues by using them at times when the chances are low that there will be success (among many other ways). And dogs are pretty good at figuring out that when the clicker comes out or a bag of treats appears, that suddenly the predictability of reinforcement for certain behaviors goes way up. (Please see my post on discriminative stimulus.)

Ugh, so, how can you break this cycle?

One way is to build ‘training’ into your everyday life. In other words, always be on the lookout for what your dog values at that specific time such as going for a walk, going out the door, playing tug or fetch, or sniffing a fire hydrant; and have spontaneous teaching moments using those things as reinforcers for wanted behaviors.

Note here that those ‘wanted’ behaviors should be taught in advance in a real training session.

Here are some dog training tips:

Make going out the door contingent upon your dog sitting on a mat until released. (Click here to read how to teach this.)

Make a game of tug contingent upon your dog sitting and waiting until you give your dog a cue to grab the toy.  Or you can ask your dog to do any number of already learned behaviors prior to a cue for GAME ON.

Call your dog to come from another room with some kind of reinforcer – be unpredictable here. It could be that sometimes coming to you results in a game of chase or fetch. Other times you may run grab a cookie when he gets to you, or attach a leash (if he enjoys walks).

If your dog is behind a gate, you can teach your dog that his remaining seated while you walk up to and over the gate is what gets you to step over and pet him; while his getting up results in you walking away from the gate.

Do you see the pattern?

With all of these scenarios, the common elements are:

Consistency in cues/feedback to your dog
You are taking that dependence on food out of the equation
You are building value for listening to you and for doing behaviors you ask by teaching a positive                  association between you and positive consequences of behavior
You are decreasing that dependence on ‘Show me the money’

Here is a challenge for you. Can you name four or more things that your dog values? And can you brainstorm for ways in which your dog can use behaviors to GET those things of value?

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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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.

Be A Teacher Not A Punisher

This is just a simple reminder that our pets were not born knowing what our expectations are of them. If you have not given them good, acceptable choices for using their minds and bodies, they will come up with their own choices, which you may or may not like. Remember, that behavior which gets the animal something it values will be behavior that gets repeated. Always make wanted behaviors valuable choices…from your pet’s perspective. Be your pet’s dog or parrot trainer who uses positive reinforcement to teach what you want to see.

Instead of using punishment to train your dog, use positive reinforcement and you will see more of the behaviors you want to see.

 

Teaching Behaviors With Consequences

It is a common question of new puppy owners…”When is it okay to begin training my pet?”

dog and pet training involves controlling the consequences to make behaviors more probableThe most simple answer to that question is, as soon as you bring your puppy home. Here is the thing. Every living being is constantly learning about what behaviors to repeat or to weaken or extinguish based upon what that behavior causes to happen. Behavior, after all, is simply a tool that animals use to get consequences.

If you replace the word ‘training’ with ‘teaching’, it gives you a very different lens from which to look at your relationship and your leadership role with your new friend. Teaching occurs with every interaction you have together, and every interaction your puppy (or dog, or parrot or other animal for that matter) has with his/her environment.

*If* that puppy does something and it gets him/her something that he/she values, then he/she has every reason to continue doing it – because it works. It is so easy when you are living with another being (even with people) to accidentally reinforce what you find problematic and annoying.

Puppies, who were not born understanding self control, learn very quickly that jumping, barking, and grabbing gets them awesome stuff in life. And, once those behaviors have reinforcement histories they will not only continue but strengthen as they grow into adulthood.

Being fully aware of this is the first step toward teaching your puppy life skills that will help him/her succeed in your home. Great initial behaviors to reinforce are ones that have to do with self control, calmness, and focus.

Remember, training occurs every moment of every day, whether you call it training or not.

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