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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Using Toys as Motivation

 What do you do if your dog isn't food motivated when you are trying to do a training session?

Sometimes, Azul will work for food in a training session and sometimes he won't.  Azul was highly food motivated up until about 10 months old when he basically decided that there are a lot better things in this world then food.  Azul is highly motivated by games including tug, chasing his flirt, and playing hide-n-go seek.  He also really enjoys playing with other dogs and sniffing around the environment.  Sometimes it can be difficult to find things that will motivate your dog to participate in training sessions, especially if those sessions involve repetition of the same thing because you're trying to train something brand new or a more advanced concept.  As you can see in the video, Azul gladly does what I'm asking but then he refuses the reinforcement treat I offer. 

This lets me know that if I continue to use food as motivation, he's going to walk away from the training session and probably not learn what I'm working on this session.  I've always used games to help with training Azul, but when he started refusing food I really had to amp up my skills of using toys and other motivators.  However, using toys as reinforcement takes a lot more skill as a trainer.  Here are some of the common problems with toy motivation.

  1. If you choose a toy that your dog really loves, they can be so focused on the toy that they don't want to do anything else but play.  This is very similar to the same problem Cam had in the video in my Food Motivation post.
  2. Sometimes the game you use for reinforcement takes so long that getting in multiple repetitions of the new skill you are trying to teach becomes problematic.  You may end up with get 10 minutes of play and only 1-2 minutes of actual training accomplished in your session.
  3. What do you do, if your in a place where you want to have reinforcement available and you don't have your dog's favorite toy?  Sure you can try to always carry a tug toy or ball with you, but sooner or later you are going to be somewhere with out that toy.
  4. Another common problem with toy motivation is that it may work really well in medium level distraction environments, but not work at all in high distraction environments.  Azul loves tug and I can play in multiple environments successfully, but a tug toy is not more interesting to Azul then watching another dog that comes into our environment unexpectedly as dogs hold a higher reinforcement value to him.
And this is where you have to expand your skills as a trainer to overcome these common challenges with toy motivation!

This video demonstrates how I use momentum during a training session to keep Azul moving and motivated at the same time.  I'm using tug as my motivation and working on targets.  Azul is well used to doing multiple targets with his paw, nose & chin so I'm working on teaching him to step on my foot on cue and will eventually apply that to a way to alert to dizzy episodes.  I'm using tug with various common targets on the floor so I can keep the tug game going while also hitting targets as we play.  In this way, I start out capturing his natural targets as he offers them during the tug game.  If you listen with volume on, you'll hear the occasional Yes or Good Boy paired with him hitting various targets.  Once we build us some speed and he realizes that his game is better if he keeps hitting targets, then I can start cueing specific targets.  I will do 2-3 easy targets that he knows and throw in the new paw to foot target occasionally.  Once he's hitting the new target often and easily, I can change up my game plan and make the criteria slightly higher or reduce the motivation level slightly lower until we get to a place where I can get the job done with little to no reinforcement.

When Azul understands the new target on cue very well, I can start moving out into other environments and with increased distractions.  But to protect my previous training, I will avoid asking Azul for this paw to foot target if he is in a highly distracting environment such as that dog that just showed up.  I want to avoid teaching Azul that he can ignore doing this target if something else in the environment is more fun.  That doesn't mean I will never ask for this in a high distraction environment!  As a rule, I ask for easier cues that have a higher reinforcement history when an unexpected distraction is present.  Then I will also add in training sessions to help reduce the distraction caused by things that are repeat triggers.  For Azul, his biggest distraction is other dogs as he loves to sit and watch whatever the other dog is doing then race up to sniff the area after the other dog has moved on.  I will work on his dog distractions in a completely different training session and not when I'm working on a fairly new skill.

Using Food as Motivation

 What motivates your dog might vary from day to day! But dogs generally have something the love more then anything else. Cam has 2 high value reinforcers that I can use to motivate him; food or treats & tennis balls. Today I'm going to use food as my example.

When it comes to a successful training session, food is by far the easiest way to reinforce your dog for doing what you want. Food can be broken in tiny pieces, delivered quickly, and delivered at the perfect time for you to capture the behavior you are teaching. If I'm teaching something new, food is by far the best motivator.
However using food reinforcement has its downfalls too. Using food that is too low of value for the behavior you are after can cause the dog to get up and leave, checking out of your training session. Using food that is too high of value for the behavior your after can cause the dog to lose focus.

In this video, you will see that Cam is offering a ton of similar behaviors but takes awhile to get around to the behavior I'm asking. All I'm asking for is simple targets that he's known and done for years. I'm using dehydrated liver to reinforce several very simple behaviors. I also haven't done any training sessions with Cam in several days. My +R is simply too high of value for the job so Cam isn't really paying attention to what I'm asking. All he can think about is the food.
If your dog is highly food motivated, you may want to look for less value motivators for simple jobs and save the high value treats for hard work such as learning a new skill.

How Motivation Effects +R Training



How does motivation effect your positive reinforcement training?

Reinforcement is often compared to a wouldn't work for free why should our dogs? I hear this all the time! There is truth in this statement but what it doesn't account for is that payment can be in many forms. Money isn't enough for most of us although it is highly motivational for most people. The same is true for dogs...Food isn't always motivating enough, but it sure works well. Why?
Another frequently heard phrase in dog training is that all dogs are food motivated if you do it right. Again there is truth to this, but if you always use food to motivate your dog you have a very transactional relationship with them. You give them a job, they do it, you pay them. This is a really great model for when you are training something new or difficult as it's easy for the dog to understand what behavior you would like them to repeat. But there are also a few problems that can develop if we only rely on food motivation for our training.
1. Health issues could cause your dog to go on a limited diet or reduce the treat intake for a period of time.
2. Your dog can become hyper focused on the treat to a point that the food is more distracting then helpful.
3. While I'm a full believer in always having treats on hand, there is a point you hit where you don't want to constantly reward the exact same behavior forever. We often teach young puppies to sit, but we don't want to have to give them food every time we need them to sit for their whole life.
Why do so many of us rely on treats for dog training then? Simply put, because it's easy! Rewarding behavior we want the dog to repeat is the whole idea of positive reinforcement training. This month I'm doing lots of posts on motivation. So stay tuned to learn about other methods of reinforcement you can use to motivate your dog.

September Series: Motivation

 I've been posting a September series on Motivation on my Facebook Page and I've decided to put the same information here! Moving forward all my training series posts will be done on this website with some of the posts being shared to the Facebook page.

We, as people, have chores to do that we don't want to do without good motivation. Who really enjoys doing dishes or running the vacuum? How about walking dogs when it's really hot, really cold, raining, etc? So why do we expect our dogs to do what we are asking without motivation?

This month I'm going to post about different types of motivation; food, toys, games, sniffing, etc. It's important to pair the right style of motivation with something that works nicely with your end goal. Cam is extremely food motivated and also loves praise and petting. Azul loves games, tug & other less common forms of motivation.
More on this topic will be coming soon!

Monday, September 27, 2021



Meet Azul

Azul is an 18 months old, Husky mix and the main focus of all my training posts.  He is my Medical Alert & Response Service Dog providing assistance with migraines and multiple auto-immune issues.  I also use him as a Training Demo Dog to help clients learn how to use positive reinforcement techniques to train their dogs to be great family members, working dogs, and excellent community members.  Azul will also be cross-trained as Therapy Dog where we will specialize in educating children by providing resources in animal safety, understanding the role of Service Dogs, and how they can engage with their pets in age appropriate ways.

Azul loves to play tug, explore the outdoors, and socialize with people and dogs.  He also enjoys games and adventures that involve sniffing the environment or searching for treasures.

Meet Cam

Cam is my 7 yr old German Shepherd that our family rescued when he was 2 yrs old.  His previous owners were in way over their heads and had no idea how to deal with such a smart dog.  

Cam has made great progress over the years with the use of positive reinforcement training.  He knows several of the Service Dog tasks that I need assistance with.  But he also has a fear of other dogs which causes him some anxiety so he doesn't help me with much dog training.  I do occasionally use him for online training if I need a specific video to demonstrate a skill.

Cam loves to chase tennis balls, although he is slowing down so he can't chase nearly as many as he would like.  He also enjoys hikes in remote areas where we are not likely to run across several dogs during our hike.  Cam has actually been a great help in training Azul to do many of his tasks and basic obedience.  Cam is awesome at following off leash cues and has great recall so he has been helping to teach these skills to Azul.

Together we all live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where we love to do most anything outdoors!  While I am disabled, which requires me to keep my client list small, I am passionate about reaching as many dogs as possible.  I'm a huge advocate of providing a teamwork based approach that helps everyone (dog & handler) to be successful together.  Science has proven that dogs have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of their person and I believe we, as owners, need to also have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of our dogs.

Please reach out to me if you have any questions or would like to discuss training needs.

Monday Night Mini-Groups

Azul and I are excited to be hosting a weekly Monday Nighit Mini-Group Session.  This is open to all dogs of various skill levels.  The cost of the mini-group is $15 per dog.  The session will last approximately 45 minutes with an opportunity for a private1 on 1 session immediately following the mini-group at an additional cost of $5 for 5-10 minutes or $15 for 60 minutes.

City Park in Iron Mountain
Meet at 5pm by the tennis courts.
Text 906-399-0548 for more information.
Yooper Paws of Love
Training You and Your 4-Legged Companion

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