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  • David Cameron

Missed Opportunities


One of the biggest differences between a professional dog trainer and a typical dog owner is the frequency of reinforcement. If I’ve learned anything training dogs and teaching people to train dogs, it’s that people are stingy. No matter how many times I highlight the importance of getting lots of repetitions in, people constantly miss opportunities for reinforcement. They tend to get the dog to succeed 5-10 times, then they want to either stop using food rewards or increase the difficulty of the behavior. Alternatively, they do a good job of delivering reinforcement while they’re “training” but fail to reinforce desired behavior between training exercises. Dogs learn all the time, not just when the human is training.

The first rule of dog training is reinforce desired behavior. That means that if your dog is doing something you like, especially if there are distractions and other, less acceptable behavior choices your dog could be making, failing to reward that behavior is a missed training opportunity. Your dog’s behavior is almost exclusively due to the consequences you deliver or allow to occur in response to the behavioral choices he makes. Consistently ignoring desired behavior is the recipe for eliminating it.

If you want to teach your dog a new behavior, you need to establish a strong reward history for engaging in basic approximations of that behavior first and foremost. That is the foundation upon which all future improvements, refinements, and proofing will be built on. When I teach classes, I’m constantly holding my students back. Left to their own devices they would constantly be pushing at the limits of their dog’s capability. Novice trainers tend to move too quickly in their training, and expect rapid improvement and learning. It’s understandable, as it is exciting and enjoyable when you make progress. Unfortunately, moving too quickly can increase the dog’s failure rate, causing confusion and frustration and slowing the learning process. Attempting short-term rapid improvement often leads to long-term delayed or stalled improvement. When teaching or refining behavior, remember the maxim “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

When dealing with general behavior, we humans seem to be wired to expect good behavior, delivering feedback in the form of punishment only when our expectations aren’t met. For a long time I couldn’t understand where that bias comes from, but I now believe that it’s because of our mastery of language. The ability to point out failures and explain why punishment is being delivered - and how to avoid it in the future - probably makes punishment more effective when using it on other humans.

No matter the reason for it, the expectation for “good behavior” from our dogs is there - even if that behavior is neither instinctual nor trained. It’s tragically comical how people expect their dogs to share our human morality and behavioral norms. New dog owners often expect dogs to know that jumping for attention is ”bad”, and want to know what they can do when it happens to get the dog to stop. They have exhausted their repertoire of “punishment” such as scolding, holding the dog’s paws or kneeing them in the chest without producing change. What they fail to understand is that their so-called punishment is actually reinforcement in the form of attention, and that attention is what’s maintaining the behavior. Reinforcement is what shapes behavior.

Dogs do what works for them - produces good outcomes and avoids bad outcomes - from their point of view. We have complete control over most of the things our dogs enjoy in life - food, attention, play, social contact. The way to change your dog’s behavior is to change the way that you respond to it. Instead of expecting good behavior, expect terrible behavior. Reward your dog when they don’t meet those expectations. Communicate with your dog when they succeed rather than fail. It’s an entirely different way to view your relationship with your dog, and will be far more effective in shaping his behavior. It will also allow you to appreciate and enjoy your dog so much better.

How many times a day does your dog currently fail to “behave” resulting in you punishing or scolding him? Probably less than a dozen. How many times a day does your dog make good behavioral choices? Probably at least a hundred. How many of those training opportunities are you missing? Open your eyes to the miracles that happen every day with your dog - an entirely different species, coevolved with humans to the point that we can communicate and live together closer than with any other species (sorry cat people, it’s true).

If you’d like to see this concept in action, I’ve got a little experiment for you. On your next day off of work, don’t deliver your dog’s food in a bowl “for free”. Put it in a treat pouch and reward the dog throughout the day for engaging in behavior you like. If your dog is clicker conditioned, even better. Reward both behavior that you ask for, like obedience training exercises, and behavior the dog offers freely such as choosing to come to you or sitting quietly entertaining himself with a toy. Reward anything that you like and would like to see more of. I promise you will be blown away by the change you see in just one day. It’s not necessary to do this exercise with food every day (though it wouldn’t hurt either!). You can reward your dog with play, attention and other things - the important thing is to start noticing and rewarding the things you like.

I’m a big fan of the 80/20 principle, and the way I try to apply it here is that I try to make at least 80% of my feedback to dogs - even the “worst” behaved ones - positive. Sadly, for most dogs that ratio is reversed, and they lead frustrating, confusing lives because of it. Reinforcement is the main driver of dog behavior. Embrace communicating with reinforcement, and be thoughtful about why and when you provide it, and you will go a long way towards shaping the dog you want.

#training #reinforcement

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