Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Using Environmental Motivators

How can you use things in the environment as reinforcement?

In an earlier post, I described how different dogs find different things motivating.  Some of Azul's highest motivations can be found in the environment.  He absolutely loves sniffing outdoors, playing with puppy friends and greeting new people.  But these things can be extremely hard to use as reinforcement since they are very hard to control.  

One of the first things I do is teach my dog about delayed reinforcement.  To do this, we play impulse control games that include delayed reinforcement.  The "It's Yer Choice" game, taught to me by Susan Garrett, is where you offer a low value reinforcement and by your dog choosing to ignore it, earns a high value reward.  You start with your dog only ignoring the low value for 1-2 seconds, then slowly increase the time you ask your dog to ignore the low value treat.  I also play a tug game designed to build speed in accomplishing tasks, but helps with delayed reinforcement as well.  I use 2 of Azul's toys to toss and tug.  To start I gently hold Azul's harness or lead and toss his toy a few feet in front of us, pausing for a second before releasing Azul with the Get It cue.  Now racing to the toy is a medium level motivation for Azul, but the real fun starts when he comes back to me for a game of tug.  As soon as I release him to get the toy, I start moving in the opposite direction so he has to quickly return to me for the tug game.  This game is great for teaching so many things, but it helps with delayed reinforcement as you can slowly add time before the release and throw the tug further away so it takes longer to get back.  Eventually, I don't need to hold Azul back, because he will wait to be released in anticipation for the tug game to follow.

I think the easiest environmental reinforcement to learn to use is the sniffing.  Yes, I can't find all the really great sniff spots, but I can choose to walk in a wide variety of locations that are sure to provide good smells for Azul to sniff.  There is a loose leash walking exercise in which you let your dog walk along and when they pull the leash tight, you stop and wait for them to relax the leash before you walk again.  (Does this sound a little bit like delayed reinforcement?)  Well this walking exercise really kicks into gear with a dog who loves to sniff, gets the hint of a great spot.  They pull to get to the spot, and you counter with a stop until they stop pulling.  They relax the leash and you allow them to continue to the spot.  This may take awhile, but eventually the dog learns that by keeping the leash loose they get to smell whatever they want.  My dogs get at least 2 free sniff-a-bout walks in our yard every day, in turn this reinforces being calm in the house.  Azul earns additional sniff-a-bout walks by joining me out in public doing his Service Dog tasks.  If we have a really long day, we will take several short sniff-a-bouts throughout the day, and a longer walk at the end or a game of tug.  This is a win-win for both Azul and I, as he has the fun &  I benefit from the exercise, plus we both love being outdoors.

A little bit harder to use as reinforcement is greeting new people.  Thankfully I live in a pretty dog friendly community where people love to pet Azul.  When Azul was still learning how to behave in public I really relied on this reinforcement to help teach Azul where and when it was ok to socialize with people.  I would ask Azul to ignore people while we were in the middle of a training session, then at the end of the session we would either stop to greet staff or find a stranger in the parking lot.  In the beginning we did this at the end of every training session whether I wanted to or not.  Now that Azul is older and has had more experience, I don't have to find someone to pet him at the end of every outing but we still use this as reinforcement quite often.  Once trained, this is one of the easiest ways that I can reward Azul.

One of the hardest reinforcements for me to learn to use effectively is playing with other dogs.  Don't get me wrong, Azul plays with other dogs quite regularly.  But turning this into reinforcement for working hard is the tricky part.  Since Azul often goes on dog training sessions with me, we have been able to establish a routine of a quick greeting with some play on leash, then a training session, finishing with an extended play on either a longline or in an off leash area.  This is helpful for many reasons, most importantly for this post is that dogs learn to ignore the other dog when in work mode and the play will come at the end.  The other thing this does is help seal in the learning part of the session.  Dogs learn better if the session involves games, the dog plays their favorite game at the end, then takes a rest period.  Almost every training session I have with my dogs, we will play one of their favorite games; tug, flirt pole, puppy play, etc.  

Using this reinforcement can be challenging because I can't always find a friendly dog to play with unless it's pre-scheduled with one of our puppy friends.  Another challenge is that I've used this reinforcement so heavily with Azul that he becomes very distracted when an unexpected dog enters our environment because he wants to play with everyone.  I've been working on training sessions at the same park as our local dog park where I work on a wide variety of skills with the sounds, smells, and sights of the nearby dog park.  After the session, I can reinforce the session by visiting the dog park however if I don't like the way other dogs are playing, I'm not willing to risk letting Azul play.  This kind of makes it hard to rely on this as a delayed motivation if I can't follow thru and give it every time.  If I'm not comfortable going into the dog park, I then have to find a different way to reinforce the training session that is equal to or greater then the fun he has playing with puppy friends.  That's when I make a stop at McD's for a hamburger, which is a reinforcement I try to use sparingly.

All of these environmental reinforcers are very hard to use when training a new skill.  I try to hold any new concept training sessions at a time when I know that Azul will be interested in food motivation because that is so much easier.  Then once he gets the basic concept, I can move toward using one of these environmental reinforcers to proof the concept in a wide variety of places with a varied level of distractions.  To do this, I use a marker word to let him know he is doing what I want; yes, good boy, rockstar, etc.  When Azul hears these marker words, he knows he's doing a great job and will be reinforced more heavily at the end of the session or outing.  In the end, Azul and I develop a great relationship of give & take, where we work together to help both of us do the things we enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. I don’t use as many environmental reinforcements as I should.


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