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!

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!

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