Reward or Ignore – are they the only options?

The saying ‘Reward the good and ignore the bad’ has a lot to answer for in how people view reward based training (and trainers).  Some people seem to think that reward based trainers will ignore all sorts of bad behaviour (such as barking, aggression, chewing inappropriate things, jumping up at people etc.) and will just wait patiently, for the dog to stop doing that behaviour and do something that can be rewarded. This just isn’t the case and the saying is grossly over simplified (have a look also at my blogs Proactive not Passive and  Changing Challenging Behaviour).

All too often, trainers just focus on using the 4 quadrants of Operant conditioning and forget about all the other ways that organisms learn and that can be a real handicap for a trainer. Yes, we know that rewarding appropriate behaviour with something the dog want, will lead to an increase in that behaviour (R+) and that with holding something the dog wants will reduce undesired behaviour (P-). We also know that positively punishing the dog (P+) by applying something that the dog will actively work to avoid, will reduce behaviour. We also know that removing something that the dog will work to avoid, will increase a desired behaviour (R-). What else do we need to know?DSC_2521

All too often, Classical Conditioning gets forgotten about (this does tend to go hand in hand a bit with Operant conditioning; it is difficult to split them completely). Classical conditioning deals with reflexes and conditioned emotional responses. A dog that is fearful of something needs to be classically conditioned to learn that the scary thing isn’t that scary.  So the most fabulous rewards appear in the presence of the scary thing. I’m sure if someone offered me enough chocolate, I could eventually learn not to be frightened of Earwigs (shudder).

The opposite side of the coin is sensitisation, where a dog becomes more and more worried by something. This is a natural trait and helps keep animals safe from predators, but also occurs in pets where they can be overwhelmed in their socialisation experiences and become worried by something or it can be a by-product of using positive punishment or flooding.

Another understated method is Premack or Grandma’s Law (eat your greens and you’ll get dessert). Basically, Premack makes a less probable behaviour become more probable. Let’s use Beau as an example. She is a ball obsessed spaniel that really finds it difficult to ignore a tennis ball, even if she already has one in her mouth. The behaviour that I want to make more likely is her letting go/leaving the ball (She would much rather hang onto the ball, so this is a low probability behaviour). I reward her leaving the ball, by letting her go and get the ball (this is a highly desirable behaviour as far as she is concerned). By using a highly desirable activity to reward a much less desirable behaviour (as far as the dog is concerned), we are gradually building a more reliable leave.

Beau Leave

The same principle can be used to increase the reliability of the recall. If your dog chases critters, then you can use that to help the recall away from critters. The chasing of critters is a highly desirable (to the dog) behaviour (high probability) and the recalling away from the critter is less desirable to the dog (low probability), but by allowing the dog to return to chasing after it has recalled, will make that recall from critters much stronger. Just bear in the mind that by the time your dog has called away from chasing the critter, it will have long gone by the time you send the dog back for it..they still get the fun of sniffing where it was.

How many other examples of Premack can you think of?

DSC_5368Then there is good old Habitutation. Basically, this just means being exposed to something and getting used to it. It should be a none (neutral) event really, with no positive or negative emotional responses. I used to live in a house next to a church with a chiming clock. When we first moved in, I heard that darn clock chime very quarter of an hour. It didn’t take long for that sound to become just background noise and I had to really listen for that clock chiming if I wanted to check the time. The same happens with people that live next to busy roads or next to a railway line.  Allowing a dog to explore an environment before asking them to work is a form of habituation (or acclimatisation). The more environments they are used to being in, the faster they will habituate to new ones.

Lara habituating to a new area

Socialising a puppy is basically habituation as we want the puppy to be used to every day things. It should be a neutral process or mildly positive (see Keep those experiences positive)

We could also talk about Flooding (sink or swim approach), but I really hope that no one uses this approach with dogs any more as it it not the most humane approach and just results in a dog shutting down through excessive stress and learned helplessness (if you can’t escape something, you just give in to the inevitable).

Extinction is another way for an organism to learn. A previously reinforced behaviour is no longer reinforced (rewarded) and gradually disappears. This often happens by accident, when the pet owner forgets to reward a desired behaviour and over time, the dog stops doing that behaviour and does something else that does earn them reinforcement. This often happens with behaviours such as recall and loose lead walking. Extinction, can result in a large amount of frustration. Just try not feeding a dog titbits from the table when it has had a long history of being fed titbits that way….you will see the frustration build and if you persist (many owners will give up), you will see an extinction burst and then the behaviour goes away. Take note though, you only have to reinforce that behaviour again and it will be back to full strength very quickly and this time, it will be harder to extinguish.

A better way to extinguish behaviour is to couple extinction with Differential reinforcement, where a different behaviour is reinforced and the undesired one extinguished. There are several approaches to using differential reinforcement: DRI, DRO, DRA and DRL

DRI – differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour. Your dog can’t jump up on someone is he is taught to sit. Sitting being incompatible with jumping up. Training your dog to go to its bed or to a mat when the doorbell rings is another form of DRI. I’m using DRI to teach Lara to leave me be whilst I am training another dog. In the video clip, she is being rewarded for staying on a platform while the other dog is working.

Lara DRI

You could also use DRI to teach a puppy not to nip, by reinforcing for them carrying a toy, for example.

DRO – is the differential reinforcement of another behaviour provided that the undesirable one doesn’t occur with in a defined, fixed period of time. So if our puppy doesn’t mouth us within 5 seconds of being stroked or played with, then they are rewarded, no matter what behaviour they are exhibiting. You do need to know how frequently the mouthing occurs.

DRA – differential reinforcement of alternative behaviour. This is useful when it is difficult to find a behaviour that is incompatible with the undesired one, so another behaviour is chosen that can be reinforced.

DRL actually refers to differential reinforcement of lower frequency. The aim is to decrease the frequency of the undesired behaviour, but not necessarily to remove it all together. It doesn’t tend to get used a lot in dog training. Some trainers have defined DRL as differential reinforcement of lower intensity.

We also have Insight learning, Latent learning, Social learning, Counter conditioning, Systematic desensitsation and Observational learning to consider.

Learning theory and positive dog training is so much more than just rewarding the good and ignoring the bad.

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Running Free – an understated need

Living with and working with dogs that are easily over aroused (poor impulse control) and those that are reactive to various things, I’ve recently be pondering about exercising these dogs.

Note: for the purposes of this blog, reactive dogs are those that lunge and bark at things like people, dogs, other animals, cars, jogger etc. I know all dogs are reactive (aware of and reacting to) to what goes on around them, if they weren’t they would be dead!

We are often told to make sure that these dogs have relaxing, calming walks and to allow them to sniff. This is because these activities are inherently calming. I have no problem with that as a main activity, but I do think dogs need more than this; they do need to burn off some energy by being allowed to runabout and to play with their handler (or other dogs if they are sociable). We are often advised that allowing a dog to run about is too adrenalising and will make it more reactive or ‘hyper’. The flip side of that is, that if  a dog is never allowed off a lead to run about, it will have pent up energy just desperate to bubble out..think about it as a can or bottle of a fizzy drink that has been shaken up…all that energy needs to go somewhere and it will explode out once the bottle/can is open.

It must be very frustrating, as a dog, when you are kept on a lead for the majority of your walks, even if you are allowed to wander where you wish and for as long as you wish. Dogs do need to run and burn off their energy. Compare it to a toddler that has had to sit still for several hours and how they just have to have a run about afterwards. Consider how you would feel if you were only allowed to walk to the same places day in and day out and how much you’d enjoy doing something different.  Conversely, I’m not suggesting that you just let your reactive dog off leash to do as they please, but they do need to trot, run and lark about.

In my experience, the lack of off lead exercising can make reactive dogs more reactive and can bring out other unwanted behaviours. With those dogs that can be over aroused, an off lead blast is a great way of letting off steam and you may well find that they are less easily aroused after a good run and less easily triggered as well as a bit less OCD.

Of course, finding safe places to let these types of dogs off for a good run, can be difficult. If you have a dog that is a car chaser, it can be hard to find an area to let them run where they won’t see a car and be tempted to chase. For those dogs that are reactive to dogs and/or people, it can be hard to find somewhere to let your dog run off lead where there are no people or dogs. Often times, we end up walking in very secluded areas or very early or late at night, so that we can avoid those triggers.

17103796_1890622894549274_3683343764793018899_nIf there are no safe off lead walks near you, consider hiring a secure field for your dog to run off lead in. Several rescue organisations rent out their secure fields (such as Jerry Green’s and the RSPCA centers), some boarding kennels may rent out their secure exercising fields and, thankfully, there are a whole host of private secure fields that have been developed for dog walking purposes. These fields are usually available to hire for 30-60 minutes and some allow you to have dogs from more than one family sharing, so that you can have a safe place to meet up with your dog’s pals.

16938839_1890622881215942_961381504793021443_nThere is a fab resource on FaceBook called Dog walking fields – enclosed, private, off lead dog walking  which has details of secure fields all over the UK. I’m lucky that there are about 4 secure fields within an hour or so drive from me. Check the page out and find a secure place to give your dog a good off lead run. Great places to work on recalls as well.

Try it out, just once a week and you may see your dog’s behaviour improve for the better.

Costs vary depending on area, but somewhere between £5 and £10 is the likely cost and once a week, that has just got to be worth it.

Thanks to The Paw Park at Sand Hutton for allowing me to use a couple of their photos

 

 

Keep those experiences positive

We all get told to do it, but just how do we do it correctly?

What am I talking about? Socialising your puppy of course.

24826216_1747354428670420_1879317993_oWith having a new puppy myself, I’m back to going through this process with my puppy. So let’s take a look at what socialisation is all about. Basically, it means exposing your puppy to everything that it is likely to meet as an adult, so that your puppy isn’t frightened by those things in later life. Sounds all fine so far, and we’ve all seen those checklists where we tick off that our puppy has met x number of people this week and x number of dogs and heard x number of sounds and so on.

 

Checklists are great as a basic, but they do tend to shift your focus onto completing the checklist rather than the actual process of socialisation and what it means to the puppy. Socialisation is the process of allowing a puppy to become familiar with something, whether that is a person, and object, a sound or another animal. It is a process of habituation (becoming familiar with) and it should be a positive experience (nice things happen) or neutral (nothing pleasant or scary happens).  Given a choice, I prefer to make every experience that a pup has, a pleasant one. It sets the pup up for being a well rounded, confident dog that can take a few emotional knock-backs because it has a host of positive experiences to fall back onto.

If we become focused on just ticking the boxes on a checklist, we can forget to make these experiences pleasant or neutral for the pup. What can happen is that a pup is put into a situation and then feels overwhelmed. This is not a positive association for the pup, nor is it neutral; it is a negative (scary) situation for the pup and continual experiences like this will create a pup that doesn’t like certain people, dogs or situations or could even become a nervous dog altogether.

If someone wants to say hello to your puppy, ask them to ask the puppy if it wants to say hello. If the puppy puts its tail done, turns its head away or moves away from that person, then the puppy is quite clearly saying that it doesn’t want to say hello. Respect the puppy’s decision and just ask the person to stand there and leave the pup alone. What you don’t want to do is pick the puppy up and thrust it into that person’s arms as now you have just taught your puppy that you won’t protect it when it is frightened (you are no longer a safe place) and you have just made that person and that experience (other people approaching) a very scary thing. You also don’t want to drag the puppy by the lead to ‘say hello’ or allow the person to keep approaching until the puppy can’t escape and has to submit to being touched. These situations will end up being very scary for the puppy and they can learn quite quickly, to be scared of people (or even a specific type of person, such as men, women, children, babies, etc.) and try to run away or to drive the scary person away by barking and lunging. What we have just done is the direct opposite of socialisation! We actually made people scary!

The same can happen when your puppy meets another dog or puppy. Allow them the chance to decide whether they want to interact or not. There is little point is pushing your pup into interacting  with another dog or puppy that is going to be aggressive or bullying with them. A poorly run puppy play session, whether it is at a training class or a dog creche, can do untold damage to your pup and make them worried by other dogs approaching, so that they react by barking and lunging or these play sessions can teach your puppy to be a bully. Neither of these scenarios are good or appropriate socialisation.

DSC_1656Pups do not need to play with every dog they meet or every person they meet in order to become sociable around them. All they need to do is be able to see them and have wonderful things happen whilst dogs, people, vehicles etc. are present. If the puppy wants to approach closer, then fine, but do be guided by your pup’s body language, not by an arbitrary check list that says your puppy MUST meet 10 people this week. Yes to the meet, and be prepared to say no to the interact.

Of course, depending on your pup’s innate personality, it is entirely possible to over-socialise your pup. What do I mean by this? Well, your pup can have so much fun saying hello to other people and dogs that it has little interest in you and all that it wants to do is drag you over to say hello to other dogs and people or it clears off to see them as soon as the lead comes off and has little interest in being with you. You’ve basically become your pup’s social manager and little else. Your puppy needs controlled exposure so that it learns that responding to you is still important and you should most certainly work on teaching your puppy to come away from another dog (not all dogs are friendly) and from people (not everyone likes dogs)

DSC_2108Being able to take your dog anywhere and have your dog continue to do as it is told, is just fabulous and opens up so many opportunities for you and your pup to go on social walks with your dog. Socialisation is something that every pups needs to experience in a positive way. Note that I say it is something that the pup needs to experience; their choice. It is not something that we just expose a pup to, as that it when it is likely to go wrong and we end up turning what was a confident pup into a shrinking violet that finds the World a very scary place.

If you are not too sure that you are reading your pup’s body langauge correctly, then please seek help and advice from a reward based dogs training (avoid anyone that tells you that your pup needs to ‘face up to its fears’). You could also take an online course in Canine Communication.

Have aread of our other article on socialising dogs. Sociable or Socialised?