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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Expo Inspiration: Which Clicker Training Project to Choose?

The annual Clicker Expo (East) was held last weekend in Virginia Beach (it’s in a different city each year).  I flew down Thursday and arrived in time to meet up with old friends and new at the reception.  As this is my third Expo, I found I’ve gotten a little jaded- I now know that the people there will be kind and encouraging, the dogs well behaved and happy.  My first year I was astonished by the overall positive feel of the place!  It doesn’t make it any less wonderful to be surrounded by all that reinforcement, however.

The challenge, after hearing lectures, watching labs and sharing stories with fellow trainers, is which projects to take on upon my return.  There are so many things I want to do!  I started off by attending Ken Ramirez’s lecture, “What a Concept: New Frontiers in Concept Training” followed by observing the associated lab where a dozen or so dogs and handlers got to try out some beginning concept training under Ken’s guidance.

Ken covered three basic concepts: Match to Sample (where the dog is shown an object and then must choose an identical object from a collection of varied items); Do As I Do (where the dog mimics either another dog or his handler); and Counting (in which the dog demonstrates an ability to distinguish the number of objects in a collection).   When I walked out of that lab, I wanted to attempt all three projects and I wanted to do them with both dogs and horses.

On Saturday, I started the morning by listening to Laurie Luck‘s lecture “At Your Service: Teaching Service Dog Behaviors”.  The lab for this lecture was at the end of the day.  In her lecture, Laurie stressed that the things a service dog does are “just behaviors”.  They can be trained just like any other behavior, once you break them down into manageable components.  In the lab, she coached many dog/handler teams through the beginning of teaching a dog the opposites “push” and “pull” and then scent detection, as a service dog who learns to alert a diabetic to low blood sugar would.

This little dog captured my attention in the Service Dog lab.
This little dog captured my attention in the service dog lab- she loved the “pull” exercise where her love of tugging produced quite a vigorous pull!

This lab rekindled my desire to do some nose work with Beetle (whose sight and hearing have faded with age, but whose nose works just fine!).

The topic which surprised me most was the lecture Hannah Branigan gave, “Obedience Competition: Break It Down to Build It Up!”. I have not previously been interested in obedience competition for dogs, but this talk opened my eyes to the many different behaviors required of these dogs AND I was hit with a realization of how useful the techniques Hannah explained would be for Dressage with horses.  My mind was just popping with connections and it’s one of the things I love about learning about training dogs- takes me right outside the box with the horses.   I could not attend the lab with this lecture (we are limited to one lab per day so that everyone gets a chance to get in to limited space), but the talk did inspire me to attend another lecture of Hannah’s on Sunday, “Prep School for Competition Dogs”.   By the end of this, I was thinking it would be fun to do some of these exercises with Eloise until the snow melts and I can try them with the horses.

On Sunday, I was able to be a coach in Kay Laurence‘s lab “The Craft of Fine Slicing”.   In this lab, Kay asked participants what behaviors they would like to teach, and she then showed them how to slice these behaviors down into the smallest beginning components- where do you start to teach a dog to back, to turn to left or right or to cross its paws?  She stressed the importance of a base position- a position from which you can begin to shape other behaviors.  She frequently likes to begin with a base position of “standing with stillness”.  This means the dog is simply standing and waiting for your guidance.  I decided that with all the glory of the things I had seen over the weekend, that was probably a good place to start.

Kay had demonstrated how she tossed treats behind the dog and then clicked as he returned while he was still standing. Many dogs have a “default” behavior of sitting or lying down- we train these early and they are pretty strong.  Eloise well knows that if there is any question, it’s a good idea to hit the ground.  Trying to catch a dog whose legs are only 6 inches long before she drops is a hard thing to do!  I was tossing treats as Kay had, but Eloise kept sliding right into a sit or down when she came back.  Kay, and others, have stressed the importance of observing and setting the dogs up for success so I watched and tried to figure out what I could do.  At one point, I tossed a treat higher than previously and Eloise jumped up to snatch it out of the air- that time she came back and stood in front of me, ready to leap up again.  Aha!  That was the way I could keep her on her feet.  I tossed the next ten treats up, she jumped up to catch them and then stood waiting for the next one.  I could then click as she stood, even withholding the click for a few seconds as she continued to stand, and then toss another treat.  Ten clicks, ten stands.  We have a start.

I still have plans for the other projects.  I also began Beetle on the nose work this afternoon.  But one thing at a time.  There were many other lectures I attended which addressed more nuanced topics of how to go about training- with luck, I will retain those thoughts to be woven into my daily interactions.

Standing with stillness
Standing with stillness

Introducing Beetle

Beetle mushroom 4

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!