Pay It Forward: Reinforcement Is Not Bribery

IMG_2946Many times when I do an evaluation on a new dog, the owner will tell me “she’ll come if she knows I have treats”, or “if I shake the box of dog biscuits, he’ll come running”.  But, they say, the dog will not come when called, unless they know the goodies are waiting. This causes several concerns with dog owners regarding using positive reinforcement to train.  They don’t see how positive reinforcement is any different than what they are already doing and they think that if they don’t have the treats, the dog will ignore them.

This is a hard concept to break through when we do use food as a reinforcer. When I talk about using high value reinforcers depending on the difficulty of the behavior, they think that they need to show the dog that they have hot dog bits in their pouch before they step outside so the dog will pay attention.

The opposite is actually true. We do not want the dog to know ahead of time what, if any, reinforcer is available.  Shaking the treats, showing the cheese, making a show of putting on the treat pouch: these are all forms of bribery.  Effective use of positive reinforcement is not bribery.  The proof of that is a dog who has been trained with the correct use of treats as reinforcers.  These dogs come running every time, from a cue, whether it’s verbal, visual or other.  They don’t look to see if the person has worthwhile treats- they come immediately, with great speed, and directly to the handler. 

The reason positive reinforcement works so well is in the definition of the word reinforcement itself.  In behavioral terms, reinforcement is something which makes it more likely the behavior will happen in the future. So this past week I found myself pointing out to clients that the treat they deliver has no effect on what the dog just did- the behavior is over!  But it does have an effect on the next time you ask the dog for that behavior.  If you call your dog, without any bribery, and then are able to reach into your pocket and pull out a piece of cheese to give him, that may make it more likely he will come when you call in the future. He did not even know you had cheese in your pocket, but you did!  You want to be full of happy surprises like this.  Every single time your dog does something you like, you want to be able to surprise her with something she likes.  This is called building a reinforcement history.

When you have a strong reinforcement history, meaning you have a reputation with your dog of “paying well” for behaviors, your dog will begin to respond to cues more rapidly and with much greater reliability.  We refer to reinforcement history as “putting money in the bank”.  You want to have plenty in the account so that when you need to make a withdrawal, the reinforcement account is flush.  When your dog responds to your cue, for instance when he comes when you call, you are making a withdrawal from that “trust account”.  The level of difficulty of the behavior will determine how much is withdrawn.

In the house, getting ready to go for walk and you call your dog, well that might even be free because the dog wants to go out with you!  The opportunity to go outside is payment enough.  In your yard with no distractions and you call your dog, that might cost you a little bit.  Dogs love to sniff and smell things so while it may look to you as if it’s an easy thing, really he had to give something up- the pleasant occupation of sniffing around- to come to you.  So you just made a small withdrawal from your account.  But you can replenish that easily by giving him a treat when he returns.  The balance has been restored. There is enough in the account so that next time you call, he will respond.

The challenge, of course, is when the UPS man pulls in the driveway.  Or at least that’s the biggest challenge at my house.  That UPS truck is the source of so many distractions: movement, intruder on the property, friendly guy in the truck, who gives dog biscuits, and oh the smells on his tires, his clothes, the packages.  I don’t know about you but my dogs act as if the property is under attack when he pulls in and then switch to “here’s Santa Claus!” mode when he stops.  They are in that truck checking everything out.

For me to be able to recall them in that situation, I have to have an account that is full to bursting.  The only way to get it that full is to put lots and lots of little deposits in over time.  When we are outside, whether it’s to go to the barn, or to get the mail, or to go for a walk, I make sure I have low and high value treats with me.  For my dogs, examples are kibble, cheese and hot dogs.  I cut them up in tiny bits (smelly hot dogs go in a tiny plastic container with a lid), I hide them away in a pocket before we leave so the dogs never know what’s there. And then we practice.  I call them when nothing is distracting them and pay with kibble.  I call when there is a mild distraction (sniffing in the woods) and pay with string cheese.  I call when a car is coming and I pay with hot dogs.  My dogs don’t know what I have, but they know that it will be good.  Each time I give a treat, I am putting money in that bank.  Every day I put more and more in- if I’m cheap and only put in kibble each time, that might keep the account level…but will it put enough in so that when the UPS man comes, I have what I need?

I never know when the UPS man is coming, so I can’t slap a steak in my pocket for that particular occurrence.  I can, however, pay it forward.

Keep treats on hand and on you all the time.  You want to pay for the easy stuff, so that the account can cover the cost.

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