While we tend to think that our animals need routine, routines can become ruts. Ruts aren’t fun. Animals understand patterns and when they predict something enjoyable, they can become disappointed and frustrated if it doesn’t happen. On the other hand, if we surprise them with something new, it helps to build some resilience for those times when unexpected or unavoidable situations disrupt the routine. We can help our dogs learn that different can be a good thing.
Last week on my Bookends Farm blog, I wrote about one of my horses sneaking into the barn and finding enjoyment exploring the area. He found this somewhat novel experience preferable to being outdoors with his friends eating hay. That was an example of him creating his own novelty in enrichment. I promised a blog post on novelty in training with dogs so here it is.
The routine in our house is that mealtime for dogs is when we come in from barn chores, both morning and evening. Eloise, my Jack Russell Terrier, runs up the stairs in anticipation as soon as we come in. When I get upstairs, she is sitting on the little rug where she waits for meals. If I am in a hurry to do something when I get in and don’t immediately feed her, she continues to sit there. She learned that sitting on that rug is what causes meals to appear, and my occasional lateness taught her that she needs to keep sitting there. That behavior has become resilient to the passage of time. How have I made that a good thing? Oftentimes what delays her breakfast is that I am sharing mine with her. If I feed her immediately, it’s because I have prepped her dog food quickly. If I am making scrambled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, I will make extra so she can have some for her breakfast. More often than not, a late breakfast equals a special breakfast!
One of the first handouts I give to dog clients is about treats. I explain that treats should be small and soft but that each dog will have preferences in taste. I ask people to try different foods to see what their dog likes best and then vary those treats according to the difficulty of the training. I suggest commercial treats and “people food” such as cheeses, meats and peanut butter. People find something the dog likes, but then they stick with it. The dog gets accustomed to that treat, and it stops being quite so reinforcing. The dog doesn’t focus as well. When I visit, I bring something new, such as ham, or chicken and the dog can’t wait to work for me! The people see how well it works and then use that as a reinforcer…and stick with it. They neglect to take advantage of novelty. I tend to have something different each week so that the dogs never know what to expect from me. It’s not the specific food I have in my treat pouch, it’s the knowledge that there will be something new and exciting.
The reaction from the dogs shows that it’s not what I have; it’s the anticipation of what it will be this week. They don’t ignore me until they see what I have. They know I’m good for something novel and so they focus on me as soon as I step in the door. That’s what makes positive reinforcement and novelty both so powerful and so different from luring, even though both involve food and both can use novelty. Positive reinforcement includes the element of surprise.
In addition to varying foods as reinforcers, we can also vary activities. I like to surprise Eloise after a recall. Sometimes she gets a treat. Sometimes I pick up a stick and toss it for her. Other times I pat my chest which is her cue to leap into my arms. Then she gets her wiry hair scritched before being put back down to run off again. In the fall, our road is littered with wild apples and they make wonderful things to throw and fetch. They bounce and taste good too. My old Jack Russell, Beetle loved snowballs tossed for him to leap up into the air and catch. Nature provides novelty if we take advantage of the opportunities.
When training a new behavior, novelty may cause problems by interrupting the flow of training. While the dog is still trying to figure out what earns the click, a high rate of reinforcement (the number of click/treats per minute) gets many repetitions of the correct response. Offering the dog something novel could slow things down. The dog might sniff first, then savor the morsel and finally look around on the floor to see if any was dropped.
I prefer to use novelty to maintain behaviors that might otherwise lose their fluency over time. The problems that distractions cause can be counterbalanced by novelty. It becomes “can I catch that squirrel?” against “what goodie might she have”? I want to be sure that my reinforcer is worthy of the decision my dog makes!