Dog Training Tip: What is a Reinforcement

To successfully train a dog, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour.
A REINFORCEMENT causes a behaviour to be more likely to happen again in the future.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you add something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you praise and treat when your dog is walking beside you. Your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. (NOTE: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you remove something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you remove the pressure on the pinch collar when the dog is walking beside you.  Your dog learns that his behaviour can make bad things stop. A force-free trainer focuses on using positive reinforcement.)
The dog decides what is a reinforcer in that situation, not you. You may enjoy patting your dog on the head when he comes to you when you call, but dogs generally don’t like this, so if you do this, you will actually be punishing the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Maybe your dog sometimes enjoys petting, but in some situations, the dog may not like it. 
The reinforcer needs to be delivered immediately after the behaviour (e.g within 2 to 3 seconds), otherwise the dog will not understand what behaviour you are trying to reinforce. For example, if you call your dog to you and she comes to you, but then you ask for a sit before you give the dog the treat, she will likely understand that the treat was for the sit and not for coming when called. Later, you can add sit into the mix as part of the routine you want to train, but for early training, give a treat for the recall. You can give a second treat for the sit.
Using a marker signal can help signal to your dog that the behaviour was correct and that a reinforcement is coming. This is helpful if your dog is working at a distance or if there will be another reason for a delay in delivering the reinforcer.  This signal can be a word (e.g. “Yes!”) or a sound (e.g a click) or even a visual cue.
Beware of unintentionally punishing a behaviour. Petting the dog in a way that the dog doesn’t like is a common example. Another is getting angry at your dog for coming to you: perhaps you called several times before your dog came to you; perhaps you are upset because your dog ran out the door or across the busy street; in these cases, if you scold your dog after he comes to you, then you are making it less likely he will come to you in the future. Another way people accidentally punish the recall cue is calling your dog for something the dog isn’t going to like such as a nail trim, perhaps, or the end of the fun such as leaving the dog park or coming inside the house. Practice calling your dog in a fun situation, give the dog a little treat, and immediately send your dog back out to enjoy the fun. This way, when it’s time to leave the dog park or come inside the house, your dog will be more likely to come when called because “come” won’t always mean that the fun will end.

Building Duration of a Behaviour 

Your dog is good at giving you the behaviour you are wanting (e.g. attention) but after the treat is delivered, your dog stops the behaviour (perhaps thinking that the treat delivery is the release cue). How to increase the duration of a behaviour?
There are a few ways that you can try:
One way is to delay the delivery of the treat slightly. Praise immediately after the behaviour but then use your voice to serve as a bridge as you then take a slightly longer time to get that treat out of your pocket. Then you may advance to taking a slightly longer time to begin to move your hand towards your pocket. The goal is to stretch that time but not too fast. Teach your dog to learn to wait by starting with little delays of the treat delivery.
One way is to delay the marker signal. The marker signal is the signal that the dog has learned means that she/he did the right thing and a reinforcement is coming. Some people use the word “Yes” some people use “Good dog” and some may use a clicker sound. It can be anything but it is something your dog has learned  means that he/she did the right thing and a treat is coming. Perhaps your starting point is 1/2 second, meaning, your dog will perform the behaviour for 1/2 second and then you mark it (marker signal) and then deliver the treat. If your dog is very good at waiting 1/2 a second before you mark and then treat, try stretching your dog to 1 full second before you give the marker signal. If your dog stops doing the behaviour after 3/4 of a second, stay silent and wait for the dog to do the behaviour again and try marking it at 3/4 of a second (before your dog stops doing the behaviour).
One way is to let your dog know that there may be more than one treat coming — or not. If your dog is stopping the behaviour immediately after he/she gets the treat, then have several treats in your hand and begin to deliver a second and third and fourth treat in a row right after the first treat — before the dog can stop doing the behaviour you initially asked for and were treating with the first treat. This is the first step to extending the duration of the behaviour. After you see that your dog is learning to wait for the second and third treats, then you can start to stretch that time a little between the treats. Stretch gradually in order to maintain the level performance. And sometimes have four treats in a row, and sometimes have two treats in a row, and sometimes three and sometimes one. When you give the “last treat” for that behaviour (e.g. your dog has looked at you for the length of time you wanted) give a release command of some kind to let the dog know that it’s okay to stop the behaviour now. It might be a verbal cue or a visual cue (hand signal or a nod or something else you do with your body or eyes).

Improving Tolerance Around Triggers

I focus a lot on reading your dog’s arousal levels, to ensure that your dog A) is not becoming sensitized to stimuli in the environment and B) is able to behave and think and learn (a stressed brain — excitement or anxiety — doesn’t function well).
When you are working on helping your dog learn to self-regulate around triggers, reading your dog’s arousal level is essential. You want your dog to be under threshold. You allow your dog to approach the trigger (increase the intensity of the trigger) until your dog reaches the threshold distance (the smallest distance where your dog is still able to be “under threshold”). After spending a bit of time at that distance, you retreat from the trigger (lower the intensity of the trigger) and give your dog some recovery time. How much time do allow your dog to spend at the “threshold distance”? The answer is “just enough but not too much.” LOL And the answer will differ depend on your dog’s nervous system that day at that time in that situation. How much time do you allow your dog to spend at a low intensity distance for “recovery time?” The answer is “not too little” and you need to read your dog’s subtle body language and know your dog well to know if he/she needs more time for his/her nervous system to recover.
And remember that the last half of the class may be very different than the first half: your dog’s nervous system might be getting overloaded after 30 minutes of the class (or less for some dogs). We like to hope that the longer the exposure time, the more the dog will become used to it, but this isn’t always the case. The dog’s nervous system gets tired just like ours does after a long period of stress.
And we always want to err on the side of caution to avoid the opposite to our goal — we don’t want to SENSITIZE the dog to the trigger, which can easily happen if we are setting our hopes and expectations too high. This is often the case if we find that the dog doesn’t seem to be improving.
So, here’s a little tip:  
 
When you are setting a goal, make the goal about your dog’s arousal level, not about the distance or duration. 
What I mean is that if you are thinking “I’m going to see if my dog can pass by that trigger at distance X” then your focus is on “distance X” and you may be inadvertently setting your dog up to fail (or to become sensitized to the trigger). If you change your thinking to “I’m going to see if my dog can maintain an arousal level of 2 as we pass by that trigger” then your focus is on the dog’s arousal level. The distance your dog needed at that time will be noted by you for future encounters, but that distance is not the goal.

Dog Training Tip: Curve Approaches

Observant people familiar with dog body language know that a dog is more relaxed and less stressed if the dog is able to choose an “indirect” path — a curve if you will — when approaching people, other dogs, or objects/locations that are unfamiliar or have a history of causing the dog anxiety. Watching well-socialized dogs meet each other while off-leash illustrates this beautifully.

Have a look at the videos from this study where dogs’ heart rates were measured during direct approaches (head-on) and indirect approaches (curves).  You will witness the correlation between the heart rate and the dog’s body language and tightness of the leash. In my Wellness & Enrichment dog class, I instruct students to monitor the amount of leash pressure the dog is causing on the walk and use that as a guide to assess the dog’s level of arousal in order to keep the dogs under threshold.

When walking a dog on a leash, remember to avoid head-on direct approaches when passing people, other dogs, skateboards, the yard with the dog barking at the fence, etc. Your dog might be trying to pull away to make that curve, but an uninformed dog handler may give a “correction” or lure/coax the dog to continue the direct approach, causing increased stress levels. This is how dogs become sensitized to these situations, and how many dogs begin to show over-reactive behaviours when encountering these things on a leash.

 

Dog Training Tip: Fence Aggression

This is for general information only. Please consult a variety of reputable resources, including a reputable dog behaviour professional. 

Walking past a yard containing a dog aggressively charging the fence is stressful for everyone. Every repetition of the event will increase the likelihood that the aggressive behaviours from the dog in the yard will occur again in the future, and likely more intensely. It’s a situation where the dog does not get used to it but instead becomes sensitized to it.

There are numerous devices and methods that are designed to suppress aggressive behaviours at the fence by delivering a consequence that causes the dog physical discomfort or anxiety. Dog training that tries to suppress the behaviour are more likely to increase the stress of the dog and make the aggressive behaviours worse, cause new unwanted behaviours, and lead to a dog that aggresses without the warning signals that have been punished.

But what’s the owner of such a dog to do?

Firstly, be sure that your fence is secure to keep everyone safe.  You may want to consider installing a second fence along the edges (or just the problem edge) to create a section of empty space several feet wide. This added distance could be helpful for the dog’s stress levels, as well as the ones for those on the other side of property line fence.

Secondly, set up other management and safety strategies to help to promote safety and help to reduce the intensity and frequency of the behaviours. This may mean keeping your dog inside during times of the day when the fence line is “busy” so to speak. It may mean taking your dog outside while on a harness and leash until the dog’s training has improved. Changing the type of fence may be helpful, as well (some dogs do better with fences that prevent the dog from seeing what is going past on the other side).

Thirdly, get help from a reputable professional  sooner rather than later because it’s much easier to change the behaviour when it’s mild than when it’s severe.  Be sure the person you hire understands how to address the underlying emotions that are causing the aggressive behaviours. TIP: “Dominance” is no longer scientifically acceptable and the theory of dominance to explain dog behaviour was disproved several decades ago.  

Here is a video of one way to use positive reinforcement training to reduce fence aggression. Of course, finding a way to reduce the dog’s arousal levels will help make the training much more effective.

 

 

Over-reactive Dog Behaviours

The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject.  If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than compulsion training (verbal “psst’s” or physical corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars).  Compulsion-based methods attempt to suppress the emotions that drive the over-reactive behaviours, and they often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.

What is over-reactivity?

Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to common stimuli in the dog’s environment at a normal intensity (“normal” referring to the distance, exposure time, and behaviour of the stimuli).   These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog.  Some dogs are over-reactive to a small number of triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place).  In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively.  In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.

What can cause over-reactivity?

Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow.  What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet.  (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)

Poor socialization (deficits and “bad” experiences) during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to over-reactivity.  Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity.  The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive, often showing increased sensitivity to sounds and movement.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.

One factor often overlooked is diet.  Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs.  A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs.  A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system. As well, there is some evidence suggesting that the gut biome influences behaviour, and onea gut biome that is out of balance can adversely affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Current science is showing clear links between the nervous system and the digestive system (“the second brain” as some scientists are putting it).

Things you can do:

Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment.  Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity.  But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours.  Work slowly and systematically.

When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold.  When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.

It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process.  Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects.  Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case.  The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you.  This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).

Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:

Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger.  It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further.  Some dogs need to be 100 feet away from another dog. If you are beginning to learn to read your dog and are working on giving your dog enough distance from “the trigger”, here is a good rule to follow: When you think your dog has enough distance — double it. There is a lot going inside your dog well before most humans ever notice the subtle signs of stress. By the time most humans see them (even trainers, and especially the trainers that are misinterpreting the signals), the dog is already anxious.

Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and if counter conditioning is a component of the training, the dog trainer needs an accurate understanding and skill level to implement it properly and train dog owners to do it, as well. And they need to understand when counter conditioning attempts may be interfering with the dog’s progress.

Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA

 Testimonials

When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!

~ Frasier’s “mom”

I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished!  And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!

~ Nadine Baker

Dog Training Tip: Helping your Dog in an exciting environment

Some environments are very stimulating to a dog.

  • places new to your dog
  • places where your dog experienced something very intense (intense for your dog)
  • windy days: wind stirs up scents and can lead to a bit of sensory overload
  • rain or humidity: moisture increases bacteria growth and leads to an increase in the amount and intensity of the scents. This can lead to a bit of sensory overload.
  • places with lots of things happening
  • places where there are “triggers” (things that trigger a reaction in your dog

We cannot change the environment to make it less exciting for a dog, but we can control our dog’s access to it.

  • let your dog have more time sniffing and exploring an area before proceeding to a new section.
  • retreat to an area where your dog was previously calm to let your dog’s nervous system recover a bit before heading out to a new section. Sometimes it’s good to have a “home base” area where your dog is calm, and then head out in one direction and then back to home base to relax, then heat out in a different direction and back to home base. Another way would be to start at A, walk to B, back to A. Recover. Walk to B, then to C, then to B. Recover. (B has now become home base). Then walk to C, then to D, then to C. Recover. (C has now become home base).
  • the more time your dog spends in high arousal, the weaker his/her nervous system. Recovery periods can help, but you may need more frequent breaks and longer breaks. This analogy might help: think of your dog’s nervous system as a pot of boiling water on a stove. If we keep the pot just below a boil, it can begin to boil quite quickly.  If you turn the temperature down for short periods, you can prevent the water from boiling quickly, but eventually it will boil. Sometimes you can take the pot off the stove for a bit to let the water cool and then put it back on the stove again. Sorry if you don’t cook and this analogy is meaningless. LOL
  • Start very easy for your dog. Give your dog lots of distance from the triggers — it’s much better to start too far away and then get a bit closer than it is to start too close. Once the dog goes over threshold, the stress hormones are flowing (no way to stop them) and the nervous system will be significantly weakened for some time (maybe hours or even days if it was really intense). Boiling pot analogy. If you start with room temperature water, it takes less time for the pot of water to boil than it takes for that pot to return back to room temperature.
  • Just because your dog hasn’t “boiled over” yet, doesn’t mean your dog can handle more. Be sure to err on the side of caution. After “close calls” and “intense challenges” that your dog successfully passed, your dog will need recovery time.
  • Figure out if there is a less intense time to go to a location. Perhaps there is a time of day when there are fewer of your dog’s triggers around. Maybe your dog will be better able to self-regulate and make good choices if your dog has had a good nap, or a training session, or a play in the yard, or a full tummy, the day after daycare, or anything BUT the day after daycare — whatever it is that works for your dog. You are the expert of your dog. Be a detective and see what you can do to change the situation to help your dog control his/her own behaviours.

Remember, we can’t change our dog’s emotional state. We can control some of the things that influence our dog’s emotional state and we can help encourage some emotional states and discourage others. The rest is up to the dog. It must be at the dog’s pace.

Please read the short piece on how emotions drive behaviours.