Friday, February 25, 2022

Understanding Reinforcement & Self-Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is huge for all force free dog owners and trainers!  Why, because science and our own personal successes prove that it works.  That is, if we learn how to use it correctly and effectively!

Azul on a self-reinforcing sniff-a-bout!


 First, I want to talk about the different ways we use reinforcement in our training before we get into the different types of reinforcement available to us.  Most people use treats for training new behaviors in a nice quiet room of the house; sit, down, stay are often among the first and easiest.  In a perfect world, you can also use treats to reinforce training outside in the real world as well.  Some dogs love food so much that you may never need to look at other types of reinforcement.  But some don't love food that much, or their emotions may prevent them from taking that food in certain environments.  Lots of trainers also use various games as a reinforcement for good behaviors.  For example, a dog may sit calmly by the door, waiting for you to put your shoes and gear up and as a reward (reinforcement) they get to go outside to play their favorite game.  Azul loves to play tug, so we often use this to reinforce great behavior on an outing, this would be delayed reinforcement so I'll discuss that at a later time.  Sometimes you can also use praise and petting as reinforcement if these hold enough value to your dog based on past history.

Let's take a quick look at self-reinforcement with a basic definition.  These are things that happen, often naturally, that your dog loves; sniffing, playing with friends, hanging out with their people, the possibilities are endless based on your dog's loves.  Take a dog that pulls on the leash for example.  They generally do this to get to something such as a smell or friend, or simply because they love to move and think we are moving too slow.  When they get what they want, they are reinforcing themselves for the act of pulling.  Azul loves to sniff more then anything in the world!  When he was young, we worked quite a bit on leash manners when he was more food motivated.  But it didn't take him long to learn that sniffing was more important to him then any food I could possibly carry on walks.  (And let me tell you I tried with some amazing food!)  But food had little to no importance to an adolescent Azul and sniffs were the highest reinforcement out there.  To put this in people terms, that would be like telling you that you could make minimum wage for a full day of work or stay home and earn $1,000 that day for doing nothing.  Which would you choose?  If you love your job, it might be a harder decision but if your job is not self-reinforcing in some way, you'd probably rather stay home.

There is a common saying among dog trainers, "You don't get to choose what your dog finds reinforcing!"  While this is true, many trainers don't teach owners how to figure out what is reinforcing to their dog and how that reinforcement can be applied to future training with that dog.  It's much easier to slide a treat into your dog's mouth for doing a great job then it is to use a smell that we can't smell as reinforcing.  By learning to read our dog's body language, their method of communication with us, we can learn to tell when they really want something like to sniff a certain tree.  We can also use past history to predict what what might be coming in the paths we choose to walk.  There is trail that Azul and I walk regularly and at the start of that trail there is a tree that I believe every dog pees on that tree.  I can be pretty sure that as soon as we step out of the car, Azul wants to get to that tree more then practically anything! And he wants to hang out at that tree and sniff each and every smell.  Now I have 2 choices to make, let him stand there and "read his trail newspaper" or urge him on to continue our walk.  If I choose the later, Azul will continue to pull from tree to tree all around the lake trail while he is gathering info about all the dogs that have visited recently.  If I choose to stand there and wait him out, then do a few simple cues to refocus his attention on me before continuing we both have a more enjoyable walk.  Azul might still pick up an irresistible smell along the walk, but he can be more patient with me to reach it knowing that by not pulling he will get a turn to enjoy that reinforcement.

Now let's fast forward to the life of a working Service Dog and talk about delayed reinforcement.  Azul knows his Service Dog roll and loves joining me up public, but he still needs to be paid for doing his job.  Yesterday alone he assisted with retrieves, medical alerts, and forward momentum tasks with awesome enthusiasm.  And this is after 4 days of my poor health preventing him from getting out to explore the world.  While he is in work mode, he knows that reinforcement will be in the form of verbal and hands on praise.  But once work is done, he will earn something he values more.  This is delayed reinforcement at it's finest!  

Teaching delayed reinforcement is something most owners do with treats already.  We often teach sit by using treats, then teach down by asking for a sit.  Eventually we stop rewarding the sit and hold reinforcement until the down is complete, or maybe it's sit, then sit & shake.  This is the very beginning of teaching the dog to have a delay and we often use this method to create more advanced behavior chains such as roll over or play dead.  Owners training a Service Dog need to train even more behavior chains with delayed reinforcement.  In these examples, dogs still receive a treat at the end of the behavior, and this is where most people stop developing the delayed reinforcement training.  Sometimes owners will use "Leave It" or "It's Yer Choice" training as a way to develop additional delayed reinforcement; a treat is put down with a cue to leave it and after some time has past the dog either receives permission to eat the treat or a different treat is offered.  

This same method can be added to Azul's preferred sniffs!  He gets excited for a smell and accidently pulls the leash tight, I stop walking forward to remind him to use his manners, he lets the leash slack and stays loose, earning him the smell when I make it that far.  However if the leash doesn't stay loose, we walk right on passed that smell without the opportunity to explore it further.  This is a bigger concept to train and takes some time for the dog to learn to control their excitement level.  It's important for the owner to also keep an eye on that excitement level because if a dog becomes over-excited they will struggle to maintain that self control.  When a dog becomes over-excited, it's the owners job to provide the opportunity for the dog to calm down by stepping away from what is causing the excitement and work to regain focus. 

To advance Azul's willingness to work for delayed reinforcement even more, we build some routine fun into our schedule.  After every outing with great behavior we played tug or with his flirt pole when he got home.  Once he knew he could look forward to fun, we added in longer trips with a break in the middle for a sniff-a-bout somewhere.  Now that he knows that fun is coming, every "good boy" he hears while we are out and about becomes a promise of more fun to come when we are done working.  Another thing that Azul loves is greeting new people, so allowing him to socialize a bit as we head to the car is another great reinforcer for him.  If you can figure out what your dog loves, there are many ways you can work that into routine to be used as reinforcement to get the behaviors you love!

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