The music was pounding, the air alive with heat, bass guitar and the electrifying sound of the soloist making his strings sing. The place was packed and rocking! I had a drink in one hand and a cute guy in the other. I was 18 and just discovering life as a rock chick! (I was an eighties teen. Rock chicks were a thing back then!)
Suddenly I get a tap on the shoulder – seems my best friend had been calling me but I’d been too engrossed to hear her. She had something for me outside. So off I dutifully went – following her obediently to find out what was so incredibly important that I had to be interrupted and removed from my happy place. We had a long history together, me and my mate, so I trusted that the reason would be good!
She handed me an apple. What the..?
“’Scuse me?!” I choked.
“I thought you loved apples” my mate mumbled, clearly taken aback by my response. “I have this one and thought you’d like it.”
I spluttered something unspellable and stalked back to my happy place with no intention of leaving again. I was not impressed.
You wouldn’t do that would you?
Now, obviously this isn’t a (totally) real story. No-one in their right mind would do such a thing to their best mate. Or would they? What’s the exchange you’re offering your dog every time you call him away from his happy place?
How many times have you called your dog from something interesting or fun and offered a few bits of kibble? A small piece of commercial dog treat? A pat on the head? A tiny bit of his usual dog roll? In other words, something valueless in the context and when compared to what the world has to offer. And how good’s your young dog’s recall?
Value is defined by the ‘doer’
In the above fictitious example, you can clearly see why I might have been either disappointed or cross at being interrupted for something like an apple. Although I do indeed like apples, and eat them regularly, in the context, they’re not a valid reason to interrupt my fun. I would not want to be interrupted from my hormonally driven teen activities to eat an apple – no matter how nice and crisp ‘n’ sweet it was!
However, if I’d written that my friend had interrupted me because she had booked us a surprise meal at a swanky restaurant because it was my birthday… Ah, now that would be very different indeed. That would be worth being interrupted for. Unless I hated swanky restaurants of course.
The KEY to using positive reinforcement for training your dog in the real world (with its smorgasbord of easily accessible delights) is to use things your dog will truly value in the context. The ‘reward’ you offer in exchange for leaving something good has got to have greater reinforcement value than the activity your dog abandoned.
What IS ‘reinforcement value’?
And this is where things get tricky.
‘Reinforcement value’ can be described as:
How much pleasure/relief an animal or person experiences while undertaking a given activity in a specific context.
The important thing to remember in dog training, when you control access to ‘rewards’, is that your opinion of what’s hot and what’s not doesn’t count. It’s your dog’s point of view that’s important. You need to really know your dog:
- What does he REALLY love?
- Can you write up a top ten of his favourite activities?
- Can you rank them in order?
- Can you adjust them according to the situation?
When thinking about what your dog loves to do, don’t just concentrate on food or toys. There are many, many different things your dog loves, in many different contexts. What might be pleasurable in one context might not be in another.
Back to my fictitious story. Let’s say I’m choosy about restaurants. Some types of food I’m not so keen on eating. Oh, and I can get very nice pub grub where I am. Then what? What would have been a true reinforcement for me leaving what I was enjoying and following my friend outside? What opportunity could she give me that would make me likely to leave again if asked?
Well, as a teen, I was heavily into motorcycles. Anything big, shiny, two wheeled and possessing a throaty exhaust tone would instantly get my attention, no matter what! So, calling me outside to drool all over her new ‘sex on wheels’, THAT would have had huge reinforcement value for me!
But it might not be fun for my sister, who’d prefer the restaurant.
Other human examples:
- Do you like being given a massage? Would you like one while you’re watching an exciting sports game or movie?
- Do you love chocolate cake? Do you want to eat it when you get home from a slap-up meal at a fancy restaurant?
- Do you love dancing to great music? Do you want it playing while you’re trying to read a thrilling book?
- Do you enjoy socialising with your extended family? Do you want to go to a huge family get together after a hard, stress-filled week at work and you have a pounding headache?
- Do you enjoy playing sports? Still keen immediately after a big event? Or would you prefer something a bit less physical?
Context is (almost) everything.
It’s exactly the same for your dog. If your dog is having a blast and you need to call him, don’t offer a measly bit of sausage or kibble, have him engage in an exciting activity such as chase, tug, or ball game. If he prefers eating to playing, make the eating an experience: multiple bites of something super tasty, delivered one after the other and with real feeling from you.
The context, and what other reinforcement opportunities are available at the same time, will dictate how much value what you are offering will hold.
The missing link to the reinforcement puzzle
There’s one more bit to the reinforcement puzzle I’ve not discussed yet. That little bit is the effect of ‘history’. The more often we do a given activity, and find it pleasurable, the more likely it is we’ll choose to do it again, regardless of context (to some extent).
Why did I follow my friend out of the music gig? Because I trusted that she’d have something I’d enjoy. I made the point “We had a long history together, me and my mate, so I trusted that the reason would be good!”
That statement tells you there was a long ‘reinforcement history’ – every time I’d previously done as my friend had asked, there’d been something pleasurable in it for me. That’s why I was willing to follow her and leave an activity that was VERY reinforcing to me.
Reinforcement history and your dog
So, if you want to use play or interaction with you as rewards, the best thing you can do is engage in those activities frequently in different contexts. Use them as payment for simple behaviours so your dog gets used to them happening as rewards, not for free. To sweeten the deal even further for your dog, make a point of sending him back to what he was doing if it’s safe to do so.
Gradually make the context more challenging; more distractions, more alternative options; tougher decisions for your dog to make. Build a history of fun, exciting interactions, in many places and contexts. That way, your dog builds a habit of enjoying your interactions and will happily choose to leave what he’s doing to interact with you when you offer up a game etc.
You might think of a recall as an ‘obedience’ behaviour. Your dog should think of your recall signal as the invitation to do something fabulous with you.
There is an art to using reinforcement effectively. However, whenever you’re in doubt, ask yourself: how would I feel if someone offered me this (the reinforcer you’re offering) in exchange for that (the amount of pleasure your dog is currently enjoying). If it doesn’t seem like a good deal, change the exchange you’re offering!
You can learn more about the art and science of using reward based training by signing up to receive this blog, and other training tips, to your inbox.
Sarah and the Gang
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