Now, as you probably know, I’m a dyed in the wool reinforcement trainer. I concentrate on building behaviour I like and managing, preventing and redirecting what I don’t. I seem to be pretty successful at this because my dogs tend to grow into well mannered, happy, balanced adults with few unlikable habits – at least I think so, but I may be a tad biased!
But I have a confession to make: I’ve not always been quite so successful. In fact, on one very memorable occasion I did a sterling job of training exactly what I didn’t want using precisely the tools I’ve just described. Oops.
Let me tell you about Jenna
Jenna was the first dog I trained using nothing but positive training tools. I was an experienced dog trainer but I’d made the decision to take punishment and aversive tools out of my tool box – both literally and metaphorically.
Jenna (or the Brown Baggage as she was affectionately known) was a poodle x lab. Smart, food driven, independent and with a very high motivation to chase things. Any things. Especially live things. Rabbits, cyclists and joggers came top of the list. Ok, chasing rabbits in a safe place I could live with; joggers and cyclists – not so much.
What to do?
Well, the obvious answer was to polish up that recall. So that’s what I did. For months I worked on it. I called her off other dogs, I called her off flying tennis balls, I called her off panicked ducks and cats. WooHoo! YES! I was a TRAINER!!!!
Finally, I decided to ditch the management of the longline I’d been using to prevent her chasing joggers and cyclists. YIPPEE!! It worked – I could call her off anything! Mid-flight, full tilt, she’d stop on a dime and come charging back to me. One call of her name and she was mine.
I started to notice something: her desire to chase was escalating. Instead of just taking off after something if it came right past us, she was now scanning further afield.
She also started to re-engage in the chase directly after coming back and getting her cookie and release word. I’d say “off yer go” and off she went! Nose down to the ground, picking up the scent of her most recent ‘victim’, she’d take off hell-for-leather back down the track she’d just returned from. Oh-oh.
Her recall was without fault so what was happening?
Ummm, I was using reinforcement to train ‘chasing’ behaviour, that’s what was happening. Bugger.
The science-y bit…
The bit I was missing is this: when you teach something with positive reinforcement and add a cue to it, that cue then becomes reinforcing.
In English – when you teach with rewards, the dog enjoys doing the behaviour you’re teaching (because it gets them good things!). When you name that behaviour (so you can ask your dog to do it), that request also becomes rewarding – it’s now an opportunity to do fun stuff and get goodies.
I love shopping online for dog toys. It’s one of my favourite activities, only inhibited by the evidence of my bank account. I had to learn where to get the best bargains and most interesting toys but now I’ve got it down pat.
If my husband said to me “go buy some dog toys” I wouldn’t need telling twice. If he only did this while I was doing the washing up, as you might guess, we’d have VERY clean crockery! He wouldn’t need to hand me the laptop or credit card, just those words (the cue) would be enough to make me happy to do the dishes.
He could make me even happier by telling me to “go buy dog toys” to interrupt me from eating chocolate! Win-win for me: I eat chocolate (which I enjoy) and in an effort to curtail my waistline, I get told to “go buy dog toys”. What do you think I’m gonna weigh after a few weeks of this? (And we’d need extra cupboards for all those toys…)
So back to Jenna
She naturally loved to chase things AND she’d been taught to love coming when called. My recall signal had been trained to the point where she wanted to hear it – the opportunity to come back to me, to be released again – was highly rewarding to her.
Can you see where I went wrong?
I was calling her WHILE she was in mid-flight. As she was doing the very thing I didn’t want her to do, I was using a signal that she found highly rewarding. (A bit like me being told to “go buy dog toys” every time I eat chocolate.)
This is what I had:
See jogger – > chase jogger – > hear recall – > come back –> receive lots of good stuff – > release back to freedom – > pick up scent and restart chase – > recall back – > repeat until the lead was put on.
Can you see the loop? Yup, I was strengthening ‘chase things’ by calling her while she was chasing. And then to compound the problem, I would release her back to freedom – which became the cue to restart the chase! Aaagghh!!!
Easy trap for the unwary
I see lesser versions of this scenario play out so many times:
* Ask your dog to sit while he’s jumping, reward the sit. (Get more jumping up.)
* Ask your dog to come while he’s eating something yucky, reward the recall. (Get more scavenging.)
* Wait until your dog is pulling before cuing him back to you for a cookie. (Get more pulling.)
* Say your dog’s name when he’s been ignoring you for 30 seconds, reward the attention. (Get more disengaging.)
Whenever you repeatedly interrupt a behaviour you don’t want, by asking for a behaviour that has been taught using rewards, you run the big risk of inadvertently strengthening the very behaviour you dislike.
You end up in a self-driving loop. Your dog does ‘the thing’ in order to get the reward of being cued to do something else he enjoys. He’ll enjoy his reward from you and then go straight back to doing whatever it was you interrupted.
Remember that the behaviour you interrupted is usually something dogs LOVE to do – that’s why he was doing it in the first place!
What to do instead
The trick is to get in BEFORE your dog has had the chance to do the thing you didn’t want him to do. In Jenna’s case, I got super vigilant about her initial chase triggers and started to call her to me BEFORE she took off like a bat-out-of-hell. It took some effort and careful management but we did get there in the end.
Obviously, you can’t do this if you don’t know your dog is going to do something unwanted. In those cases, interrupt using whatever positive method is appropriate at the time.
You’ll probably get away with it a couple of times but if you start to see the behaviour becoming stronger or more frequent, you may be part of the problem. Ideally you interrupt, note the situation/trigger and if it repeats, put preventative measures in place so you don’t have to keep interrupting your dog.
If you get this right, you’ll notice your dog starts to anticipate the cued behaviour and offers that instead of the one you didn’t want:
- The trigger for jumping becomes the cue for sitting.
- The trigger of something yucky on the ground becomes the cue to come to you for good things.
- The feel of the lead becoming tighter becomes the cue to move closer to you.
- The trigger of environmental distraction becomes the cue to look at you.
Putting it into practice
Training well with reward-based training tools takes some effort, a bit of planning and a willingness to be in the moment with your dog. However, the payoffs are huge.
Training like this turns the triggers your dog struggles with into opportunities for rewards from you. And there’s no nasty emotional fallout. A win-win for everyone concerned.
– Sarah and the Gang
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