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.

What is Reinforcing to Your Dog?

In a world where +R Dog Trainers often want you to use treats or kibble for all training or take the opposite approach and never feed treats, we so often forget that our dogs can be motivated and reinforced by so much more in life. I won't deny that using food is often the easiest reinforcement to use when trying to train a new behavior. If you are after a partnership lifestyle with your dog, you want them to experience the best life they can while they also make your life better.

What if the best in life experience isn't food related? There are so many other things in our "people world" that dogs love! With all dogs being unique individuals, with personalities, likes/dislikes, and opinions, it only makes sense that dogs would potentially have a very diverse perception of what is reinforcing. I talked about breed traits a bit in a recent blog "What is Enriching to Your Dog" and the same sometimes is true for reinforcement as well. Herding breeds often love to herd, hunting dogs often love to hunt, working lines, often love to work, etc. When we know what our dog's love, we can add that into our routine to be both enriching and reinforcing at the same time. This sounds like a perfect partnership world doesn't it?

But what if we can't figure out what is reinforcing or how to use that reinforcement during our training sessions? I'm going to try to make that easier for you in this blog and the next one!

The Pick One Game

Pick One is a scent based game that any dog can learn very quickly and is a great way to figure out what food and toys your dog loves the most! Most parents have played this game with their child at some point. You take a treat in your hand, place both hands behind your back so your dog can not see the treat. Then move both hands out in front to present them to your dog a few inches apart and with a loose grip so your dog can easily find the treat. Most dogs will zero in on the treat right away!

You can encourage the behavior you want your dog to do to earn the treat based on how you present your hands. If you present your hands low, your dog will generally paw at your hand to get the treat. If you present your hands up high, your dog will generally lick or nose your hand to get to the treat. Present your hands wisely!

In the beginning, you want your dog to win right away so you want to encourage your dog to pick the correct hand and do the behavior you are after. Use rapid reinforcement a few times if your dog is close to doing the correct behavior, then slowly start delaying the treat until your dog completes the full behavior you want. If your dog chooses incorrectly, simply open your empty hand to show them that it is empty, then present your hands again encouraging the correct hand. It won’t take long and your dog will start to pick the correct hand every time!

You can use this trick to your advantage to help you learn which treats your dog rates as high value and which treats they don’t like as much. Place one treat, perhaps a milkbone, in one hand and a different treat such as a peanut butter flavored treat in your other hand. Your dog will generally pick their favorite treat first then pick the other treat. After a few attempts, switch the treats into opposite hands to see if your dog is always picking the same hand or always picking the same treat. You can also do this with two toys! Giving your dog a choice in this fun game is a simple way to allow your dog to make choices.

Environmental Reinforcers

I've said before that 2 of Azul's favorite reinforcers are sniffing and socializing, but how do I know that?  I'm going to use one of my client's dog's as another example, Maverick loves to MOVE!  When we take a social walk with Azul and Maverick, it's challenging because Azul wants to stop and sniff along the way and Maverick wants to GO, GO, GO!  Yet they are the best of friends so they also want to be together.  I'll get into how we work that to our favor in the next blog, but for now I'm going to stick with how to determine what your dog's favorite things are.  The easiest way that I've found to figure out what my dog loves is to watch them during Free Work time.  Free Work is kind of a new buzz word in the dog training community, but it basically means the dog is off leash or on a longline in a large space and seemingly ignored to explore whatever they find most interesting.  I do this on our regular sniff-a-bouts, but you don't have to go beyond your backyard or local park to practice.

Before you head out to do some Free Work, do a bit of prep time in the area you will be working in.
  1. Safety first!  Scan the area for anything that might hurt your dog; glass, sharp things, trash your dog might eat, etc.  Also remove anything you don't want your dog to destroy so you don't have to chase them away from something if they are more interested in that.
  2. Add some things that you think are most fun to the environment; toys, treats, scattered kibble in the grass, obstacles to climb on, jump over, etc.
  3. Be sure to have some natural, environment things in the environment too!  This could be grass, trees, woodchips, water to drink and/or play in, anything.
  4. Then take a comfy seat for your self and sit in one area to observe your dog and possibly manage your longline.  You might want to have something to pretend to do, especially if your dog is typically attached at your hip; a book, your phone, something to show disinterest to your dog so they feel like they are free to explore.
Sit back and watch your dog to see what they do first?  
  • If they quickly move through the environment not really paying close attention to anything, they may enjoy moving like Maverick or they may feel the need to scan the environment for potential threats.
  • If they won't leave your side after you disengage from them, they are most likely saying that YOU are their largest reinforcement so feel free to get up and play with them for a bit then see if they will explore more.  They could also not be leaving your side, because they are fearful of this changed environment or somewhat unsure of what they are supposed to be doing.  Make sure you're paying attention to their body language to determine this!
  • If they ignore most of the goodies you've put out for them, they are pretty much saying the natural things in the environment are more fun!  Are they quick to zoom around or do they take their time sniffing the great outdoors?  Is there something they want to reach but can't such as a neighbor dog or squirrel in a tree?
  • Are they climbing on top of things, circling things, or jumping things often?  If so, agility or parkour activities might be reinforcing to them.
  • Are they drawn the yummy treats that you have hidden for them?  If so, consider yourself lucky because they are highly food motivated.  But then do they go for the high value treats that are more challenging to access?  Or choose the easier treats that are easy to reach?  From here you can set up all kinds of challenges to help build their confidence and develop their seeking skills and therefore learning how to use "seeking" as a form of reinforcement.
  • Are they drawn to the toys in the yard?  Do they pick up a ball and carry it with them everywhere?  That toy might be their favorite, but are they bringing it to you to play or simply carrying it around while they move through the environment?  What happens if there is more then one ball in the environment?  Do they trade back and forth, try to keep all the balls together in one spot, or try to get you to interact by tossing, tugging or chasing them?
Are you starting to get the idea?  If left totally alone in any environment, what will your dog choose to do?  And how then can you offer that choice to them more often?  And how can you turn it into reinforcement for the behavior you love?  That's my next blog!

Using Maverick's love of food and movement to help him conquer his fear of stairs. 
He could resist the food on the stairs, despite the fact that he loves food!
But he couldn't resist Azul running up and down the stairs for fun!

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!

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Tuesday Night Working Paws: Trainer Talks


Yooper Paws of Love and Cindy Campbell Dog Training are partnering together to bring you a new forum for community based conversations with other trainers.  It doesn't matter if you are a professional trainer or simply training your own dogs, this weekly Zoom chat is something we hope you will enjoy!

Each week we will choose a different topic and ask 3 questions to all the people attending.  You can choose to share your answer to the questions during the discussion or via the chat box.  You are welcome to be a part of the conversation or sit back and listen.

Here is a replay of last week's Trainer Talk: Do Words Matter?

The discussion for Tuesday, February 22nd will be Cooperative Care!

Here is the Zoom Info you need to access the Working Paws: Trainer Talk

Time: Feb 22, 2022 09:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 878 4940 5736

Passcode: WPTalk

Working Paws Group

The Working Paws Group is FB group that I started to support anyone who has a dog that is trained to an advance level to do a specific job.  Many of the members have Owner Trained Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, or dogs training for other types of jobs.  We strive to make this group a SAFE group where all topics can be discussed openly!  We do not restrict topics of conversation, however we do restrict styles of conversations.  Friendly debates that present facts, educational resources and scientific data are allowed.  Bullying or rude comments is not allowed!  Request to join the Working Paws Group here:

Additional Trainer Talk Topics we have planned.

Service Dog Public Access Beginnings
Trainer Imposter Syndrome
Do You Prefer Cues (verbal) or Signals (visual)?
Balancing Work, Enrichment, & Training
Reinforcement Challenges
Controversial Service Dog Tasks
Using Non-Reward Markers
Furniture Rules for Your House
Enrichment Sniffing
Activities You Do With Your Dog for Fun

We are also taking suggestions for additional topics.  Please leave a comment on this post or email me at with your suggestions.

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