Monday, April 18, 2022

Myths about using Positive Reinforcement


There are many myths surrounding the basic idea of using Positive Reinforcement (R+) Dog Training.  I'm going to try to tackle several of them in one post.  However, this could be a very long post if I can't manage to keep it short.  😄  And if you know me, you know how hard it is for me to keep anything short!  But I'm going to try, so if you want more info on any of these myths let me know!

Myth #1: Positive Reinforcement Training Doesn't Work with All Dogs!

The most important aspect of R+ training is understanding what is reinforcing for the dog.  Most people find it easier to use food reinforcement during training sessions, however if you have a picky or non-food motivated dog food simply might not work well.  The trick here is to find something your dog loves which might be food, toys, sniff-a-bouts, petting, happy words....the list is endless.  Then you have to figure out how to pair that reinforcement with the behaviors you want your dog to repeat.  I do a whole series of posts on reinforcement in my February Theme of the Month: Focus on Behaviors.

Myth #2:  Once the Cookies Stop, My Dog Stops Working!

I often hear clients comment, "I don't want to have to carry dog treats with me forever!"  But here is my answer, if you do your training right you won't have too!  Now let me explain that a bit.  Some people choose to carry treats around forever, which is totally fine as most dogs continue to learn for their whole lifetime and there is always a training opportunity just around the corner so it's best to be prepared!

R+ Training is designed on the principle of using reinforcement to teach the behaviors you want and the concepts to help your dog be successful in the people world we put them in.  While reinforcement should continue throughout the dog's life, that reinforcement changes as the behaviors become more natural or routine for that dog.  The easiest way to understand this is in terms of the reinforcement schedule you use when training a new behavior.  If you're teaching your dog to sit, you reinforce each and every sit until this behavior becomes more frequent and you switch to a variable reinforcement schedule with a cookie given when your asking your puppy to sit in a more distracting environment but not necessarily every time they sit in the house.  You add another behavior after the sit such as down or a paw target like shake, so then don't specifically reinforce the sit but you do reinforce the second behavior.  Then you are teaching the pup to wait at intersections so again you reinforce the sit in this situation until the pup understands the concept of waiting before crossing the road.  And lastly you find other ways of reinforcing the sit behavior for that dog such as when they sit at the door waiting to go outside, use may use a cookie to teach this behavior but eventually the act of going outside becomes reinforcing enough and a cookie is no longer needed.

The point is, if you don't want to always have cookies on you then train other primary reinforcers to take the place of those cookies!  Azul would much rather hear one of his "happy" words such as good boy, rockstar, and awesomesauce or be able to go sniff the environment or say hi to a new friend than he would rather be given a cookie.

Myth #3: Positive Reinforcement Training is Permissive!

This is actually a two-fold myth!  Commonly people think that R+ Trainers do not set criteria that involves consequences AND that R+ Trainers ignore bad behaviors.

First, R+ Training is founded on the ABC principle.  Antecedent - Behavior - Consequence.  The antecedent is something that happens such as a new distraction enters the environment.  The behavior is what the dog does in response to that distraction.  And the consequence is what the person does in response to the dog's behavior.  

This is commonly where it starts!  A squirrel crosses your dog's path.  The dog pulls on the leash.  The person stops moving forward, thus preventing the dog from reaching the squirrel.  

This is what a R+ Trainer typically trains toward!  A squirrel crosses your dog's path.  The dog sits and looks toward their owner instead of trying to chase after the squirrel.  The person gives the dog a cookie.  And with practice, the dog learns the person is more fun than squirrel thus ignoring the squirrel.

So where does this scenario go wrong?  (Because many dogs never learn to stop chasing that squirrel!)  There are lots of room for error in R+ Training!  But most generally it boils down to the person not being consistent with training or not using reinforcement of a high enough value in the moment.  For example, if we frequently allow our dog to be unsupervised in a fenced in area or run off leash on a trail they may be reinforcing themselves by chasing the squirrel while off leash.  This becomes more and more fun meaning we have to use higher and higher value reinforcement if we want this behavior to stop.  This leads us to the second part of this myth about R+ Trainers ignoring bad behaviors.

R+ Trainers believe that dogs need time to be dogs and do natural dog behaviors!  Dogs with a huge prey drive need to chase things.  That might not be squirrels or other wildlife, but a more owner approved method of chasing things.  Azul loves his flirt pole which activates his chase drive and since he is not a high prey drive animal, that is enough for him.  Cam is a high prey drive animal and chasing tennis balls has been developed to be more reinforcing then chasing wildlife.  And since our yard is filled with trees that squirrels can easily escape in, I don't mind if they chase the squirrel in our yard as long as they don't do it when they are on leash.  

This is where the owner has to make the decision about what are the house rules when it comes to chasing squirrels.  Is that always off limits?  Is that OK in some situations and not others?  And if so, how do I teach my dog(s) when it is OK vs NOT OK.

Another big example is digging...some dogs love to dig more then others.  Is it fair to force that dog that loves to dig to never enjoy digging?  As humans do we have that moral right?  I don't think we have the right to force our morals on any other human or animal.  I don't want holes in my yard and I don't want my vegetable garden or flowers dug up.  But I'm happy to have my dog dig in the tall grass of our field or in the sand at the beach or the leaf pile we find in the woods.  By providing the approved places to dig often enough to satisfy the dog's needs, they avoid digging in the unapproved places as a way to co-exist.

Myth #4: Positive Reinforcement Trainers believe that nothing bad should ever happen to their dog.

This is a hard truth for many new in the Force Free world and you'll probably find there is a wide variety of opinions on this one.  I can't speak for every R+ Trainer out there, but I can share MY opinion on this myth.

There is a whole bunch of evil in our world and most commonly humans are involved in that evil in some fashion.  Bad people do bad things to animals all the time.  There are also plenty of bad things that happen totally on accident.  I don't want to deny that bad things happen that are out of our control quite regularly.  But I don't want my dog(s) to expect bad things to come from ME!  This is why I don't believe in using aversive training tools such as shock collars, prong collars, or choke collars.  I want my dogs to trust that in all circumstances, I will do what is best and safest for everyone involved.  (I want my human connections to believe that as well!)

I also want to prepare my dog to trust me when bad things happen.  Going to Vet or getting groomed is not necessarily always going to be pleasurable but it sometimes has to happen.  When those negative or aversive things have to happen, I want me dog to feel comfortable leaning on me for support instead of feeling like they need to stop the negative activity by lashing out.  

It's very common for dogs to develop a fear of thunder and we as dog owners simply can't control mother nature, but we can control how we respond to that thunder and teach our dogs that we are there to help them through that emotionally upsetting activity.  We can't control what we has people are scared of or the phobias that often follow us are whole lifetimes.  I'm totally afraid of mice and I'm not afraid to admit it.  If I see a mouse run across my path, I'm going to scream and panic.  My sympathetic family then deals with catching and removing the mouse before I burn the house down.  As a trainer, I want to understand my dog(s) fears, whether they are rational or irrational, and be there to offer my support through that rough time.  

I can't prevent the bad from happening but I can train in a way that prepares the dog to deal with their fears in a healthier method.  Cam is extremely fearful of dogs he does not know and struggles greatly to read canine body language as he never learned to do this as a young dog.  When he came to us, Cam had been the aggressor in multiple dog fights simply because he lashes out first in hopes of preventing them from attacking him.  Our first lessons with Cam were all based on building a foundation of trust in us as his family. (Us meaning myself and my 2 teenagers at that time.)  Once we had the trust, we could work on safe exposure to other dogs at quite a huge distance away. (We started at over 200 yards away from other dogs!)  When then taught Cam through reinforcement that he would be safe if he maintained his heel on the opposite side of his person then the strange dog.  This meant absolutely no walking on trails or public spaces where other dogs might be present where we couldn't put this huge distance between us until Cam learned to have more trust.  We also taught him that sitting in that heel position or slightly behind his person was a safe place to watch strange dogs from a distance.  And eventually we were able to shrink that distance and merge the heeling and sitting behind his person into real life situations and even taking controlled walks around dogs he did not know safely.  (Note I said HE did not know, as we always work around dogs and people that I know and trust to follow my safety rules!)  Cam now has tools that he can use in situations where he sees other dogs, but he is never going to be happy and emotionally OK with greeting random dogs on hikes.  And I will always do my best to stop random dogs from entering Cam's bubble, which now is only a few feet around his head.

Myth #5: Positive Reinforcement Trainers use Punishment but Refuse to Admit It!

I think the important thing here is understanding the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement.  Everyone who has dogs uses management tools that their dog may not love.  Even clipping a leash on our dog and asking them to walk at our slow pace can be aversive to dogs that love to move at a much quick pace naturally.  Just like we can't prevent all bad or scary things from happening, we can't simply allow our dogs to run around at will, expecting them to make safe choices.  Trust me when I say I've learned this lesson the hard way!  The responsible owner uses a leash of some sorts when walking in public places.  If I have a new dog visiting my house, I use baby gates to create safe spaces for the visitor and Cam.  We use crates and fences to create safe spaces for our dogs.  As responsible owners we have to put safety first, for our dogs, other people, and ourselves!  I've never met a dog who actually enjoyed wearing a head halter, but sometimes that is the safest way to prevent that dog from injuring themselves, their owners, and other people.  I have a client that weighs less then her Great Dane yet has to walk her adolescent dog safely, so yes her management tools include a dual clip leash on a harness and a head halter.  Azul uses a dual clip leash in moderate to high distraction areas.  Of course he'd rather be off leash in those environments and management tools are then aversive to him but are necessary!

The whole Force Free belief is founded on using the least intrusive, minimally aversive tools possible while setting the dog up for success by working in environments that allow them to stay under threshold emotionally.  I don't ask Cam to go on trail walks on busy trails with the possibility of repeat exposure to strange dogs.  Instead Cam walks with us in quieter locations and stays home when Azul and I are working in higher distraction environments.  In Force Free training, you have to accept your dog for who they are and plan training sessions that build their confidence with success.

I hope I addressed some of these myths in the world of Positive Reinforcement!  I'm happy to discuss these with you further if you'd like!  

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