Boundary Training with Positive Reinforcement: Stay Out vs. Don’t Come In!

Semantics: what is the difference between training a dog to stay out, vs training a dog not to go in somewhere? It’s the difference between training a dog what To Do vs training a dog what Not To Do. With positive reinforcement we focus on What We Want. We can reinforce a dog for staying somewhere.  We can be clear about where it is ok for him to be. That is easier for him to understand than Don’t Do “x”.  The usual approach for expressing “don’t” is punishment, keeping in mind that the behavioral definition for punishment is something which makes it less likely the animal will repeat the behavior in the future.  With “don’t”, that’s the goal: don’t do that again.  So whether we chase, scold, yell or use any other method to try to stop the dog from repeating it, then by definition, we are using punishment. For those of us who prefer to come up with ways to use reinforcement whenever possible, we need to change the way we think and train.

When the service dog was visiting us, I had two opportunities to teach him to stay out of certain areas.  The first area was the kitchen.  He’s a Big Dog.  I like my dogs to stay out of the kitchen so I don’t trip over them while I’m cooking.  Big Black Dog was simply too big for me to even walk around between my island and counters! Plus, he could rest his head on the table, and with the slightest tilt of his head could rest his chin on the counters to, oh say, sniff what was up there.  He was very good about not IMG_4928taking anything, but I still thought it would be a good idea for him to learn to stay out of the kitchen.

So, where did I want him instead? I got out a mat and set it on the floor on the opposite side of the island.  It was well out of the way of foot traffic for cooking, cleaning up and serving.  I could foresee no reason he would not be comfortable and safe there at all mealtime prep and cleanup (while we were actually eating, he lay next to me and/or under the table so as to work on those skills). I used a hand target to position him onto the mat, and then asked him to lie down there, which, being a Very Good Big Black Dog, he did.  I clicked and reinforced.  I cued him to “stay” (which he already knew) and walked back to the kitchen.  There were sufficient distractions, not the least of which was a Little White Dog, who upon seeing a mat hit the floor was on it.  She knows all about the reinforcement for mat work.  Fortunately there was room for both of them and he’s a generous sort who didn’t object to her company.  Other distractions were the smells of cooking, the crinkle of food wrappers, and the movement of people. So initially I reinforced often.  As soon as I walked to the kitchen, I clicked and returned to treat (both of them).  I returned to the kitchen area again and did a few seconds of food prep, clicked and returned to them for another treat.  It was obvious pretty soon that he was fine with this arrangement.  Again, he’s had amazing foundations.  I was able to stretch the time to clicking after several minutes and each night could stretch the time further.  I did occasionally keep the duration short to keep the behavior strong, but by the end of our week together, he was ready to lie down on the mat as soon as I got it out, and stayed there reliably, along with his sidekick.

The other opportunity for teaching him to “stay out” was more complex.  One of my most important tasks for the week was to acclimate him to life around horses and this meant learning about life in the barn. I do have a dog kennel in my horse barn and when horses are about, my dogs go into the kennel to keep everyone safe.  But when horses are turned out and I am doing chores, I am fine with the dogs being loose. However, to keep lines from blurring, I decided that Big Black Dog should learn from the start to stay out of stalls. This was a serious safety issue for dogs, horses and people. I did not want to tell him he had to stay somewhere specific as he had in the kitchen example.  I wanted him to be free to explore the aisle, find a sunny spot to lie in or the best place to catch a summer breeze (come time for summer breezes). I just wanted him to stay out of the stalls.

The distractions were enormous. He thought horse manure was the best thing ever and he couldn’t quite believe it was free for the taking everywhere he looked…in the stalls. Step number one in setting him up for success was to close the stall doors unless I was ready to actively train. That prevented him from making any mistakes. This was management and I could have locked myself in each stall as I cleaned it to just use a management solution. But that wasn’t training. I wanted him to learn that even when stall doors were open, he needed to stay out of them. Therefore, I had to make the aisle an appealing place to be.

I did that with treats. Not only did he get to eat them, but he got to chase them down and sniff them out. He gets all his food as reinforcers. I had an entire cup of kibble in my treat pouch for morning chores and I used it! I began in the aisle, just tossing a piece of kibble on the floor to start the game. He ate it and as he was finishing crunching, I’d toss another.  He liked that game.  I opened a stall door and tossed another piece which he chased down.  I stood in the stall and tossed treats out into the aisle each time he looked at me. First to the left, then to the right. This was a great way for him to get a little exercise in the bitter weather, back and forth up and down the aisle.

IMG_4927A couple more tosses and I picked up my pitchfork.  This time I tossed three pieces of kibble far down the aisle, which gave me just enough time to scoop one manure pile into the wheelbarrow. I tossed another three pieces the other direction. The kibble would roll and bounce which sometimes took him a minute or two to find, giving me more time to muck. Sometimes I’d toss 5 or 7 pieces, but I always made sure that as he was approaching the stall, he’d be met with kibble to hunt. Pretty soon he was coming to the stall door and stopping himself, waiting for the next toss.  Success.  This was the critical point. I never had to say a word or stop him.  Simply expecting the next kibble toss was enough to stop him at the stall door.

Now I could wait a second or two before tossing.  I had a whole week, so I was in no hurry. Each morning we played this game and before long, he would sit outside the stall as I worked, only occasionally tossing kibble. Oftentimes, I’d toss a whole handful.  That kept him busy longer and allowed me more time to work.

After a few days, I decided the behavior was strong enough to introduce some more distraction. After cleaning one stall, I left that door open as I went to the next stall.  Granted, the stall was clean, but there were still many edible bits in there.  Big Black Dog paid no attention. He was waiting in the aisle for kibble games. I left that stall open as I moved on. No problem. He was focused on me (yay!) and ignored the temptations in the stalls. After a few more days, I left the stall across from me open even before I’d cleaned it. That way I could easily see if he slipped into it when I might otherwise think he was still hunting kibble. When he looked into it, I simply said his name and tossed kibble. Temptation averted. By the end of the week, I could do all my chores with all stall doors open and he never entered. Why would he when all the reinforcement was in the aisle?

Good Big Black Dog.





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