Saturday, February 26, 2022

Using Untraditional Methods of Reinforcement

If you read my last blog on how to determine what is reinforcing to your dog and you played some games & free work to find out what your dog loves, then you are ready to learn how to turn that into reinforcement that you can use!

Azul taking a break from play & work!

First let's take a look at why our dogs might love some of the things they love!  Most of those "things" can be broken down into a few categories; things that make them feel physically good, things that make them feel emotionally good, and things that make them feel mentally good.  Although some of those "things" may fit into more then one category!

Physical Reinforcement:  This typically involves movement of some sorts, whether it's racing after something they want or calmer more directed movements, our dogs typically find pleasure in moving.  This can be satisfied by simply doing their favorite activity or game.  But it can also be satisfied in training sessions by developing repetitive movements to enhance core muscle memory.

Emotional Reinforcement:  This involves changing the environment in such a way that addresses the dog's basic need to feel Safe, Calm, & Happy.  By decreasing fear & anxiety, we help our dogs build trust in our partnership which adds a type of emotional reinforcement that simply can't be topped!  We can do this by avoiding environments that we know our dog is not prepared to be in, having a plan of action for when our dogs demonstrate that they are stressed, and providing the management tools to ensure safety for everyone in the environment.  Dogs will seek out the people that they have a strong relationship with and often avoid people that they've had negative relationships with making relationships one of the highest value self-reinforcers out there.

Mental Reinforcement:  This may seem odd to you, but this often involves games!  It has been found that the act of playing develops a very strong core emotion that dogs find highly pleasant.  When a dog is enjoying the game, dopamine raises which increases the anticipation of future adventures or games.  It's no wonder many Dog Trainers are changing to a game based approach to training sessions.

Games Based Reinforcement

In this puppy session, I'm just starting to teach Izzy about reinforcing with toys.

If you've followed my blog or my Yooper Paws Facebook Page for any time, you know how much I love to play games with my dogs.  Cam is ball man who will do anything to play a game of ball and Azul is my tug buddy that doesn't realize he is learning while we are playing.  I can't begin to list all the things I've taught Azul while playing tug, some of which I put on cue and some I haven't!  It was very apparent at a young age that Azul loved tug, so instead I'm going to share a list of YouTube Videos that I already have on my channel:

Using Tug to Teach Retrieve  Puppy Version

Using Tug as Reinforcement for Staying on Mat

Using Tug as Reinforcement for Parkour Skills

Using Tug as Reinforcement for Slightly Scary Object

Here is a Playlist of all my Tug Videos if you want more!

One of the videos shows Cam being hesitant to do a behavior because I'm offering a tug toy as reinforcement which is NOT reinforcing to him.  I could have done the same activity with a ball and he would have been flying over the hurdle.  Most of the tug videos could also be done with a ball or a two ball system that we commonly use to keep the game moving quickly for the dog that loves to chase.

Find It Games is another way to help reinforce great behaviors.  While I teach Find It Games with food, I generally switch to other objects such as toys that lead to reinforcement in the way of a game once my dog finds the toy and returns it to me.  This is more reinforcement for bringing treasures to me to keep the reinforcement history high for the Hand Delivered Retrieve Task.  I also add in objects that I want my dog to learn the name of such as meds, phone, keys, etc. and once those are retrieved, I reinforce with a tug game.

I hope this gives you an idea of some games that you can play using your dog's favorite toys.  But if you need help developing games, based on your dog's preference of toys, let me know!  I love this kind of challenge.

Emotional Reinforcement

I feel like I touched based on this on all the posts at the beginning of February that dealt with emotions.  But I wanted to expand briefly on the subject that dogs seek the attention of those they've had positive experiences with.  I want you to be selfish for a moment and consider how your behaviors are impacted based on your state of physical well being.  If we as people are tired, hungry, in pain, or off in other ways, we tend to react to things in our environment more harshly then if we were feeling well.  Our dogs are the same way!  Dog Trainers commonly refer to trigger stacking when one bad thing happens after another and suddenly our dog is reacting to a rather small trigger because they just can't cope any more that day.  We've all been there as people!

But does this have to do with reinforcement?  Well, when we give our dogs choices where the easy choice is the right choice we hope they will make we are reinforcing those choices creating a history that makes that choice more likely to repeat itself.  For example:  Azul does a ton of sniff-a-bouts on various lengths of leash and longlines.  I manage the situations we are in by using the length that he can best be successful at, so that when I give him cues to be easy, go around, turn right/left, etc. the choices he has to make can be successful.  I may have to wait and give him a minute to process the directional cue, but when he makes the right choice the sniff-a-bout continues.  If he makes the wrong choice, which is rare unless he is over-excited by something, the sniff-a-bout halts.  This not only lets the self-reinforcement sniffing impact his choices, but also teaches him that following directional cues is reinforcing for us both.  We all know that we as people, enjoy the walks much better when our dogs can make good choices and follow our cues!  Otherwise the walk tends to end in frustration for all of us!

The more choices we build into our dog's lifestyle, the better they become at self regulating and the more the offer the behaviors we love on a more regular basis.  

Mental Reinforcement

This basically follows Emotional Reinforcement picking up right where emotions leave off.  Mental reinforcement can be in the form of making good choices, searching for a prize, enjoying a social encounter, or practically anything that your dog actually has to think about or process while doing it.  Some people might lump verbal praise and petting into this category, rightly so for some dogs but it doesn't stop there.  If a dog enjoys verbal praise, using words such as good dog, yes, great job and for Azul, Awesomesauce & Rockstar are favorite praise words.  Using these key words to reinforce the behaviors you love often adds to the reinforcement history for that behavior.  

Petting works on much the same principle as verbal praise.  But successful training sessions also increase your dog's sense of well being in the environment.  I've talked about Azul's Positions Game that we play.  This started as a form of game based, physical reinforcement when Azul was young using tug.  But now that he knows the positions game so well, I can use it as reinforcement for demonstrating focus in some slightly challenging environments.  As a Service Dog, Azul sometimes has to spend longer periods of time in focus and ignoring distractions in the environment.  If I see his focus begin to wane due to boredom or fatigue, I can redirect that by playing his Positions Game.  This basically adds in some rapid fire verbal praise, gets him moving in a way that makes work more fun, and helps him to feel like he is in more control of his actions, thus helping him to be more aware of his actions.

Learning how to use mental reinforcement is probably the trickiest!  Not only do you need to fully understand the emotions causing the behavior you're seeing, but you also need to understand what truly makes your dog happiest when they may be experiencing some mental fatigue or trigger stacking fall out.  This kind of teamwork is the ultimate demonstration of a true partnership to me.  And it's super important for working dogs such as Service Dogs & Therapy Dogs as this allows you teach them that the act of doing their job is self-reinforcing!  When they love their job and do it for the well being of their person and themselves, you create an amazing Win/Win partnership that can stand up to anything!

The greatest mistake people make when trying to use mental reinforcement is that they jump the gun, or start trying to use it before the dog is mentally prepared for it.  We like to offer praise to our puppies and dogs, so we do it very early on in training very naturally.  But then we just seem to leap to the end of expecting it to be enough of a reinforcement or paycheck for our dogs to continue working.  Then we get frustrated when our dog stops wanting to work or decides to follow self-reinforcing adventures over the good choices we have in mind for them.  We can save ourselves that frustration if we take the time to build up this reinforcement technique as we develop our partnership bond together.  There is no rushing this!  If you are searching for your next way to advance your partnership to the next level, let me know as I'd love to help you develop a plan for this step in your training.

In the picture at the top of this page, Azul was in need of a nap after some play and work but he was still working.  So he chose this position to lay under my feet at the table we were using so that he could sleep but still feel my every move.  I actually suggested that he stretch out on the other side of the table  where he would have more space, but he knew he wanted to sleep so he chose this position on his own. This is based on our reinforcement history in the past that has made this behavior self-reinforcing now as it takes care of his physical and emotional needs at the same time.

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