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!

Putting The Joy In Learning Through Classical Conditioning

I talk a lot about how animals learn from their consequences; and how, those immediate consequences of their behaviors are what determine the future rate of those behaviors. In scientific terms, this is called operant learning or operant conditioning.

classical conditioning in dog trainingHowever, there is another type of learning that is also very important to understand when it comes to helping our pets – and our relationship with them – to succeed. It is called classical conditioning, a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first taught us about classical conditioning over a century ago when he measured the salivation response to dogs being fed. In his famous experiment, he gave his dogs food and also rang a bell. After numerous repetitions, he rang the bell on its own without food and found that the dogs still responded with an increase in salivation. The bell, which began as a neutral stimulus, had become a conditioned stimulus.

This video gives a cute demonstration of how classical conditioning works.

Why is this such an important concept to understand? Because just as our pets are continually learning whether or not to repeat behaviors based upon whether those behaviors serve to get them a consequence of value; they also have the ongoing capacity to develop associations – positive or negative – with occurrences in their environment.

As I have heard trainer Kathy Sdao say numerous times, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus occurring just before.

The examples of this can be endless. The clicker which initially has no meaning to the animal, only acquires a positive response from the animal after it is repeatedly paired (with the clicker sound coming first) with a consequence of value to the animal. The sight of a leash acquires a positive response after repeatedly being paired with an outing.

Equally important to understand is that something your dog initially has a positive response to like a piece of chicken or favorite toy, can also take on a negative response if it is repeatedly shown just BEFORE something negative. I have seen dogs come to put their tail down and walk away as their owner begins making a stuffed kong, when the kong is only given to the dog after being put into a crate and left there for eight hours (if the dog has a negative association with being in its crate).  Many dogs begin to pant heavily, shake and seek shelter when they feel an air pressure shift as that air pressure shift has come to be associated with feared thunder storms. When an owner jerks his dog’s leash as another dog approaches in anticipation of his own dog’s barking and lunging behavior, his dog my begin having even more heightened heart rate and attention to that other approaching dog as it has come to be associated with a leash jerk.

Here is another reason why understanding this can help or hinder you in your training. Think about the ultimate chain of events – you give a cue, your pet does a behavior, and then that behavior is followed by a consequence. Each step of the first two steps is immediately followed by a consequence, and thus has the power to cause the same response as the event that occurs immediately after it.

In other words, with enough pairing, your pet’s behavior will cause the same response (whether that is an emotional response, salivation or other) as its consequence. AND the cue then, with enough pairing, will cause the same response as its consequence (with is the behavior).

When you train using positive reinforcement (with let’s say a clicker or verbal marker) then everything about that lesson is about causing positive responses. The food given at the end of the chain infects the marker which infects the behavior which infects the cue. And so the cue then takes on the same reflexive response for your student of salivation, energy release, mental stimulation, etc.

If you are wanting to build strong behaviors and have success in your training, it is important that your cues always are predictors of good things for your learner.

If, on the other hand, you give a cue, your pet does the behavior (or does not immediately do the behavior), and something negative occurs, then everything in that chain can become associated with something aversive. An example of this is if you call your dog to come and he ignores you, and the consequence is receiving a shock (remote collar) which causes your dog to feel pain and to jump. Then ultimately sniffing the flowers (or whatever your dog was doing at the time) and your cue have the potential of being associated with a feeling of pain and jumping.

This is one of the ways that taught behaviors can break down and cues can be weakened – or at least can work to cause your dog to not want to learn from you because it causes unpleasant things to happen.

My challenge to you is this: if you want your dog to do what you cue it to do without hesitation and with a tail wag, then take care to make sure that cue is only associated with positive outcomes.

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