Using Novelty in Reinforcers

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.
 
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ruts are for roads, not training

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.

 
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!fullsizeoutput_194
 
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.

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Bandit is happy to see me arrive
 
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!
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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.

Introducing Beetle

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Beetle is the one who introduced me to Clicker Training.   For that, he probably should have been the first one to be introduced, but because he was there in the introductory years, he did not benefit from quality training.  I have learned a lot in his lifetime and I will always know how long ago I first held a clicker because it was in Beetle’s puppy class.

Somehow I had heard about clicker training before that, because I signed up for the course specifically because clickers were involved.  My most vivid memory of that class was at the test at the end.  The class was held in a gym with a slippery floor.  One of the things he had to do for the test was stay at one end of the gym while I walked to the other and wait for a recall.  Then when he came to me, he was to sit in front of me.  Well that little puppy came flying so fast and sat so promptly on the slippery floor that he did a complete back flip, landed in a sitting position, and looked up for his treat.  Sold!

That said, it was not a 100% Positive Reinforcement class- we also had slip collars, gave corrections and such methods which I would not use now and which I frequently have to explain to clients.  Now I have learned to use management in order to prevent unwanted behaviors, set things up so the dog can be successful so there is no need for punishment and to break things down into manageable goals.

Beetle has what I call “neck issues”.  He’s a tough  little dog who grew up with tough big dogs (Border Collies and Livestock Guardian Dogs).

Beetle picking black raspberries.
Beetle picking black raspberries.

He has been in his share of scuffles over sticks and tennis balls and doorways.  Somehow that left him with a neck which seizes up on him if he gets cold and curls into a tight ball.  So in recent years, he wears a blanket from about the first of October to the middle of May.  We live in a cold climate!  When I first started putting a blanket on him, he hated it.   Through the use of a clicker, not only did he learn to happily wear it, but also now voluntarily shoves his head into the neck hole and stands to have it snapped up.

He still has a great recall.  It didn’t stay consistent after his puppy class.  At the time I didn’t know how to deal with distractions, maintain the training, and use appropriate reinforcers.  But we resurrected the training when Eloise arrived.  Recently though, I have had to change his cue as he no longer hears me call or whistle.  I now clap my hands together where he can see me and that is the new cue to mean “come”.  I’ve also turned to other visual cues to communicate- since body cues are much easier for dogs than verbal ones anyway, using good training techniques has made it very easy to transfer the cues!