positive reinforcement

Training and treating

Full attention

Congratulations, you have a new dog. You’ve done your research and decided that you are going with positive training. First, good for you; your dog will thank you for it. There is much to know about positive reinforcement training; the first and most important part is timing. Timing of the delivery of the reward, be what it may. Timing will be saved for another blog; today I’m discussing the actual treats or rewards. What do you use when?

The difference between the results of using a low value versus a high value treat can be amazing. Low value treats are used around the house when you want to say “yes, that is what I like.” High value rewards are used for difficult times, big distractions or major attention requirements.

Just the other day I took Riggs to a favorite walk destination where Elsa and I have frequented over the years. It is a marina/harbor on the coast. Dana Point Harbor is beautiful and a must see for anyone visiting from out of town. The walkways through the yachts, pelicans, squirrels and turquoise water is a hot spot for folks walking with or without a dog; and is a great place to get in some quality life experience.

Recently on some of my “live” sessions on FB I have explained how walking Riggs is very much like walking a kite. Well, that’s the best way that I can describe it so I knew that I’d need to up the value of my treats if I’d want some attention in such a high stimulus area. Armed with a full pouch of ground turkey and beef we head to the harbor. Yep, messy, messy.

The difference was incredible. As soon as the first piece of beef/turkey was delivered I had Riggs’s undivided attention. The contrast between low value and high value was remarkable. In fact I had to lower the value at times during our walk so that he could experience everything around him. When I needed undivided attention, I got it.

But positive reinforcement is not all about food; it is about incorporating whatever motivates a dog. I use a great number of reinforcers - tug toys, balls, catching , a squeaker, whistle etc. You need to know what motivates your dog.

If it is food then you need to dish out the rewards appropriately. That means that they need to have the right amount of value for the moment. Too little and they are useless; too high and the dog cannot even think straight. It is a juggling act.

Value - relative worth, merit, or importance: the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange.

It’s not what we consider to be valuable; it is entirely up to our dogs on what is valuable. This is why it is essential to know your dog. Or to have a trainer who can very quickly discover what motivates your dog.

Motivation - something that motivates, inducement; incentive:

If you aren’t sure what you are doing, hire a trainer. Buy a great book or schedule and online consultation for extra help or some questions that you might have concerning the whole “reward system” of positive reinforcement training.

Now, go train your dog.

Positive reinforcement/association

Reaching down to grab the very wet and disgusting ball out of Elsa's mouth I realized how far she has come.  She never use to want me to have the ball because that meant that our game was over.  She would turn her head but eventually hand it over.  She of course still does not want the game to end but when I say "drop" she gently opens her mouth for me to take it.  Why the change?  Because she gets a treat.  That and because she knows that I might just start the game up again at any moment. Positive reinforcement is so vital to canine behavior and keeping it...well, positive.  It is all about association; the link between two behaviors.   I take the ball in the end, but she gets a treat for giving it up.  Plus I make sure that I throw the ball again at some point during our walk.  That way the game hasn't truly ended until we leave the park or as they say, the fat lady sings.  :)

Positive reinforcement or association can be added easily to your day to day.   Elsa trots along nicely by my side once she gets her ya ya's out.  She knows that when she walks by  my side that treats will appear.  They don't come out often but it is worth her while to hang out there for when they do.  This is positive reinforcement. 

Positive association is a bit different but the same, sort of.   I have used association for nails.  Neither Luke nor Elsa enjoy having their nails done;  not too many dogs do.  But when I bring out the grinder, both circle with excitement.  They know that treats follow nails and I will continue this always.  As soon as their nails are done they get treats; not just one, but a few to make good and sure that it remains a positive.

Positive reinforcement is the act of linking a behavior to a reward.  This, ups the possibility of the behavior being offered again.  Once the behavior is learned you put the reward system on a random delivery schedule.  Perhaps you wait for the best or fastest behavior that your dog offers to reward.   Then you cut it back further to just every so often.  Complete elimination is up to you.  Depending on the behavior is how I factor that in.   Some behaviors should be rewarded once every so often, others don't need to be.

Positive association is creating a positive feeling around a negative activity, like nail cutting or grinding.  There are many things that dogs can baulk at throughout the day so you need to choose which of those need a positive association to.  Positive association can be done with our own behavior; you don't need treats for all associations.  Sometimes your  positive behavior to a situation can turn it around.  Take a little yapper (small dog) for example; who is going off on yours as you walk by.  You can either fuel a negative by pulling your dog away and getting upset or you can create a positive by chirping away happily while you pass them.

Plucking ears (for those who have hairy ear breeds) is another negative activity.  Treats are a must for this one unless your dog is not into treats of course.  Teeth scraping, bathing and the weekly physical; when you have a good look see.  Almost anything can be turned from something your dog doesn't want to do; to an activity that they tolerate due to the reward at the end. 

Don't get frustrated, associate.