It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. This is due, in part, to all the things that have been keeping me busy, but also because I took time to write an article for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Journal, which you can read here. Hopefully you find it interesting and helpful.
Okay. I know I said I was going to write next about searching as a reward, and I’m working on it. But I just read a blog post that dovetails nicely to the previous discussion on rewards, although it’s not about dog training at all. Instead the author, Mike Sturm, explores how we use laziness as a label for people who do not perform up to expectations.
Two points in particular caught my eye:
(1) accusing other people of laziness is intellectually lazy and
(2) helping someone to overcome perceived “laziness” requires actually “transferring [your own] perception[s] and felt value[s]” to the individual whom you are trying to motivate.
Sturm’s first point caught my eye because it reflects how many, if not most, people speak about their dogs. How many times have you heard someone say, or said yourself, “he knows better”? At a recent dog event a woman, tears in her eyes, bemoaned that her dog had just thrown away all the many months she had spent training him. All that time she had given gone simply because of her dog’s bad attitude. It’s the he-just-won’t- ____-despite-all-the-things-I-do-for-him syndrome. Maybe they’re not saying their dog is lazy or bad, but the implication is there. This is sad because, as discussed in Sturm’s blog, the real problem is that we have we focused only on “how” and not looked below the surface behavior and questioned, “why should he?”
It is so easy to point the finger at another and so hard to look in the mirror–believe me, I know. According to an individual interviewed on NPR recently, a person whose name I did not catch (but am still looking for), science shows us that when we make a mistake, we explain it away as related to some temporary circumstance; whereas, with others, including our dogs, we attribute error to some inherent failing. This means that, when we call our dogs lazy or bad or dumb, we’re failing to go through the same basic mental process or analysis that we go through automatically when the error is our own. We are being lazy! Worse, our failure to analyze what really happened condemns us to never change the behavior in question, at least not reliably.
This takes us to the second point. If you want another individual to approach a task with “urgency” and gusto, you must do more than prod, nag, or bribe, you must actually transfer your perception of the situation to the other person or dog. You must get your dog to buy into the idea that agility or scent work or obedience is fun and worth doing. As Sturm points out, even people designated as lazy will move heaven and earth to find a bathroom–because they value the goal.
Perception transference also helps explain why a seemingly well-trained dog will appear to throw away all their training. It’s not on a whim. What you were asking him to do just wasn’t that important to him, or was not important enough under the given circumstances. You see it again when a trainer’s frustration taints an activity for a dog, despite liberal use of food and praise. The trainer’s perception was transferred all right, just not as intended.
The catch? Training this way takes work, a great attitude, perseverance, more perseverance, and a willingness to take responsibility for failures. It also requires trainers to respect their dogs as independent, thinking, feeling creatures, and not as extensions to our own egos. It also takes forgiving yourself and your dog for errors, bad-attitude moments, distractions, and, yes, occasional laziness.
This can be hard, but it’s also what makes training rewarding–assuming it’s all for the love of dogs.
It feels like this should be an easy topic, no real training or thought needed, and on some level this is true. We all have a general idea how to dole out a reward. But it’s oh so easy to reward ineffectively! I think most of our issues stem from a failure to recognize (or remember) that rewards are ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to reoccur. So, a reward is something your dog actually likes and wants, offered in a manner that links it to a behavior so that your dog is likely to do behavior again—like when your dog almost pulls your shoulder out of it’s socket as he drags you to a bush, and then rewards himself by sniffing at it happily.
One way to reward ineffectively is to accidentally reward a behavior you don’t want!
Another way rewards can run off the tracks is when some of us confuse treats with rewards. Pet food marketers encourage this error after all, and it’s easy to feel you have rewarded your dog simply because you have shoved a treat at them—I think we are all guilty of this at times. But does your dog like the treat? Or maybe your dog is bored with a treat that was once super yummy—until 6 months passed by with absolutely no variation. You don’t have to hang out with dog trainers very long to hear someone indignantly say, “but he always liked these before”! Would you like potato chips if they were all you were ever allowed to snack on?
I might want to test this theory on myself, just to be sure! Potato chips are pretty darn good.
Maybe your treats are great, but your demeanor screams boredom or frustration or inattention when you offer your dog their treat. Another common thing that I see is a person leaning down over their space-sensitive dog as they offer the treat, counteracting the pleasure the dog might have felt over the treat. All these types of things can easily affect whether a tidbit is received as a reward by the dog.
Think how you feel when someone slaps food in front of you and then marches off. It’s not dinner. It’s an insult. Consider context when you’re evaluating your methods for rewarding your dog.
A related problem is the ease with which we forget that there is a whole world of rewards out there that we can draw upon. We are creatures of habit after all. But we needn’t limit ourselves to one brand (although my dogs do like Zuke’s®). Even hot dogs or cheese can get old, so although food is really helpful for precision, and treat placement, toys and games can be fun too and more motivating for some dogs or certain behaviors. Tugging (let your dog win) is a great reward for a recall or for holding two-on/two-off in agility. Frisbee or retrieving a ball can be highly motivating, and works-off calories from all the teats you’re using too.
Watch your dogs’ demeanor as you branch out. There are dogs who just don’t want you to toss the ball; they want to hold on to it. A squeaky toy that one dog loves may scare a sound-sensitive rescue.
So, now you’re convinced you should branch out, but don’t stop at toys. Why not look for other opportunities to reward good behavior. Let your dog out to play after a nice “sit” or “down.” Tell your dog to “go sniff” to reward his decision to not tug you all the way to the well-marked mailbox. Also, what things in the environment are rewarding behaviors you don’t like? You may need to cut off access to this environment-based reward if you want the annoying behavior to slowly extinguish itself.
Quantity can also be important, along with delivery (e.g., one treat after another to draw out the fun, or a quick jackpot or a 5 minute game of tug for a great job). A puritanical insistence on avoiding handouts (the nothing-in-life-is-free plan) can also undermine certain types of training, such as classical conditioning, as can the ever-popular fear of over-treating. Outside of calories (and cost), I’m not sure why this is of such concern for so many people. But over and over, I see people reward their young dog for finding a source after a long, hard search with, drum roll, a single, teeny, tiny treat—even after they were encouraged to go wild—and then they wonder why their dog is distracted by all the good scents occurring naturally in the environment. Hint—they are more interesting than the reward that you’ve conditioned your dog to associate with the scent.
I’m not suggesting that we treat anything and everything, but we forget at our peril that a better-than-all-previous-efforts effort deserves a bigger-than-most payout even if the behavior still needs work. Any effort may warrant a jackpot if it was in the presence of an overwhelming distraction, or took an exceptionally long time to complete. I cannot emphasize enough how an occasional piece (or 5) of steak, or a meatball, or a long tug session in exchange for a better-than-most effort may be all that is needed to help motivate a dog accustomed to working in a sea of teeny, tiny kibble.
So ask your dog to learn a lot and work hard, but remember that nothing in life is free. Pay up!
*Next time we’ll talk about rewards, I’ll explore how searching can function as a reward.
…Or when you decide to start with the mother of all dragons!
I read an article this morning, a parable really, that addresses the common practice of talking about change, promoting it even, while running scared from the reality of it. There’s a similar phenomenon seen in dog training where a handler says she wants her dog’s behavior to change. This handler attends classes to promote change. She fights traffic to get to this class after work. She pays for this class. While in class, she listens carefully to what her instructor says. Then, while waiting her turn, or coming or going from the building, this handler reverts instantly to gripping the end of her leash, hanging on tight, and tolerating all of the problem behaviors she just spent an hour learning how to address. And then she wonders why nothing ever changes.
Behavior changes slowly. Habits are easily entrenched, but hard to fill in or reroute. There is no magic formula. To change behavior we all must make small changes. Work with new “baby” behaviors patiently and consistently. You have to nurture a future habit until it becomes fixed. Then you’re ready to make the next change, and so on.
This is hard however. First, you have to know where you want to go with your behavior issue, whether its your dog’s or your own. After all, a fun trick that you once taught your dog may turn into a “zombie” problem that keeps rising from the extinguished behavior pile to haunt your obedience routine, or simply piss off guests, if you didn’t look ahead at what your long term expectations really were. For example, I have a “rewind” trick that now rises up in finishes and other exercises from time to time–I find it funny, but it could really upset a trainer with more exacting standards. I have another trick where my dog peeks through my legs. I like it, but not all guests are amused and my agility instructor can’t stand it!
It is also hard because we don’t break things down and think small enough. For example, teaching “stays.” Each session I ask students to start teaching “stay” first by teaching the dog to resist following a treat when the handler moves their hand away from the dog. Then, I’ll have them simply build some time into their dog’s sit: one one thousand, treat. Then move to: one one thousand, two one thousand and treat. Now build this up to a solid 5 seconds. At this point, I’ll ask them to add the actual word, “stay”, but go back to counting one one thousand, the hold period that your puppy has already mastered (and not a 5 minute stay), mark and treat, then release. Now build up to five seconds slowly before stepping away–and when you do, lower the time held.
Invariably, students ask their puppy, who just acquired the concept of sit, to stay as they walk out to the end of the leash. Of course the puppy follows, bouncing along beside them happily–or she might wander off to sniff the puppy next to her. The student then calls and scolds the puppy (breaking down the puppy’s nascent heel and recall) and drags him back to try again–hopefully I catch each student before this cycle gets too far!
Knowing this, I have to wonder why I still decide I’m going to make a change, like taking up meditation, or eating well, or starting this blog, and then alternate between attempting to create an award-winning site and completely ignoring my page, sometimes for years! I should listen to myself and start small. Baby steps. Write an entry each week (I almost said day, but caught myself). When this is habit, I will grow the behavior. I’m getting better and better at expecting smaller changes from my dogs, maybe I can start expecting less of myself, and getting further in the end.
One night several years ago my dog lost her trail at a busy intersection. The scent she was following had washed down the banks of the road into the ditches on either side. As cars passed, remnants of the scent trail floated away making it extremely difficult for my dog to follow it further. I became frustrated because I thought my dog had just stopped working. Because I focused on the perceived misbehavior, I couldn’t see the actual problem–or what my dog had done right! All I saw was that she had started eating grass and jumping up on bystanders instead of working. Later, to my chagrin, I realized that these behaviors were signs of her stress, presumably stress she felt over her failure to please me.
Fortunately for both of us, a more experienced tracker instructed me to back up and re-cast her over a part of the trail where she had worked scent before, and, sure enough, she went back to work–right up to the road, where, once again, she stopped. This time the handler suggested that I put her on lead and take her across the road. I did and again she went back to work, quickly finding her hidden helper, much to her delight. It had been an exceptionally hard trail!
Like my dog, we all are searching for something or other. And, like her, we work hard at it. We tend to focus on failure and fail to see strengths, however. We refuse to modify our plan, show flexibility, or simply laugh when things fall apart–most things in life are not life or death. Often we fail to formulate a true goal. Unsurprisingly, we get frustrated. It’s hard to make it to the end of the trail if you’ve lost all scent of it and are beating yourself up, or, worse, don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place!
That night, I learned that I must stay neutral when my dog loses her way. Provide a little help and encouragement, instead of simply criticizing failed efforts. I don’t mean we should accept failure, just don’t punish it. Most importantly, learn from it, and look out for small successes to reward. One step at a time, we can all get where we wish to go.