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.

 

Your Dog’s Emotions Drive Behaviours

In any dog training situation — whether in a formal dog class or on a walk in your neighbourhood — it is essential to assess your dog’s emotional state. Is your dog finding the experience pleasant, and is your dog under threshold? If not, your dog will begin to show more “unwanted behaviours” and your dog will find it difficult to learn.

Many (I would argue most) unwanted behaviours are a product of stress —distress and/or eustress (e.g. happy excitement). If your responses to your dog’s behaviours add to his/her stress, it’s unlikely that your dog’s behaviours will improve and they are likely to become worse.

Emotions drive behaviours. If you suppress the behaviours, the emotions still need to go somewhere (often resulting in worsening of behaviours or new unwanted behaviours). Avoid using training methods that are designed to suppress behaviours; instead address the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours (e.g. distress or extreme eustress).

This often involves controlling your dog’s access to the environment, rather than trying to control your dog. Don’t force your dog to “get over his/her fears” but instead use gentle exposures; don’t let your dog move into a new area or closer to the “object of interest” unless your dog’s arousal levels are below threshold.

To effectively read your dog’s emotional state, you must become fluent in canine body language, especially the signals your dog prefers to use. If you can become aware of the very subtle signals your dog uses when stress levels are relatively low, you can help your dog before he/she begins to show the unwanted behaviours.

Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.

Dog Training in Regina Just Got Better

The dog training options in Regina just got better. Dog owners can now train their dog to ride a Stand Up and Paddle board (www.SUPPupRegina.com). This program teaches dog owners how to ensure their dog enjoys the experience while showing good manners on the board to keep everyone safe and happy, including the person riding the board and others on the water (especially wildlife).

This SUP with your PUP certified training program is also a great way to socialize puppies and adolescent dogs to new experiences in a safe, positive way. Fearful, shy dogs can learn confidence with this certified program that uses science and positive, force-free dog training methods. It’s also a fantastic bonding experience for dog and owner. Having fun together is the best way to strengthen a friendship!

This program is taught by Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA, Regina’s first Certified Professional Dog Trainer certified with the CCPDT (www.ccpdt.org). For more information please visit SUP Pup Regina or use the contact link here.