Training Tip Tuesday: Rewards Based Training…Laying a Good Foundation

Mama Sally:

Rewards Based Training

Rugby will tell you that I prefer to train using rewards that I know a dog likes or wants.  I tend to call it “Rewards Based Training.”  Some of you might know it as “Positive Reinforcement Training.”

The term “Positive Reinforcement” is so overused and common, that I find most of my clients really don’t have a clue what it means!  If you miss the complete understanding of “Positive Reinforcement” you will miss the entire point of why this method of training is so good and so very effective!

I like to call my training style “Rewards Based Training” because I think that this term is actually more descriptive in defining what I do. Simply said, I train with a reward that I know a dog wants or likes!  Boom.  Easy peasy, right?

Your reward doesn’t have to be food! Some dogs that I train go crazy to play with a specific toy, so I use a toy to train with them! Choose the reward that YOUR dog likes and wants!

In theory, yes, it’s easy.  Dogs learn by simple means, and they learn fairly easily, so that’s one reason they have adapted to life with humans so well.  You may think that your dog is snoozing and not paying attention, but don’t kid yourself!  Your dog is a master of observation!  He’s watching the patterns of your life with him, and using his problem solving skills get what he wants and needs.  And he’s a master in getting those things in the easiest way possible.  That’s smart!

We can use all of those observation and problem solving skills to our advantage in training, because when we can create a way for our dogs to learn a specific pattern of behavior with consistency, our dogs will fall right into the behavior that we want from them! Consistency plays a huge part in successful rewards based training, because a dog has to understand and know that he’s going to get a predictable positive result that he likes and wants, when he produces consistent behavior.  This is really critical to success with rewards based training.

I often use a clicker when I train Rugby, but he also knows a verbal marker which has the same meaning for him.

Commands or Tricks are Simply Small Encapsulated Games

Think of commands or tricks as small, simple games that have specific rules for play.  “Sit”, for example has a rule that your dog must place his rump on the ground in order to get a treat.  Pretty simple, right?  In order for a dog to quickly and consistently produce that behavior, he has to first understand what the “Sit” game is.  He has to learn the word where he can focus on his handler, and receive a consistent reward long enough that the game makes sense to him, and then he will be able to quickly and easily produce the behavior of placing his rump on the floor when he hears a specific cue to “Sit”, and sees a corresponding hand signal as well.  No surprise there, right?  It makes sense to you so far, doesn’t it?

Teaching dogs to simply sit all by themselves (no command or hand signal) is often where I start my training with dogs. It helps them learn to earn something from me!

This next part is where I often see a disconnect in humans understanding how dogs learn.  Dogs simply can’t generalize their behavior quickly or easily, and that’s very difficult for humans to understand!  Owners often place unfair and unreasonable expectations on their dogs, feeling frustrated when their dog is “stubborn,” “willful” or “disobedient.” Most of the time, when I see the “stubborn” behavior in a lesson, I can easily see why there’s a disconnect between the dog and owner.  Often, it’s simply because the dog has not yet figured out exactly what the rules are for the specific game, or, sometimes, the owner has made things too hard, or too fast for their dog to figure out.

In order for a dog to really, fully understand the “Sit” game, his handler must carefully add distractions one by one until his dog can generalize his behavior in relation to that specific word cue.  This means that for success, the handler and dog must  practice the “Sit” game many times in various contexts.  For example, training needs to happen in various rooms of your house, when people are walking in and out of those rooms, outside in the back yard, on walks in the neighborhood, at the park, etc. When dogs have worked through the generalization process, and fully understand the desired behavior, then they can quickly and easily produce it. The generalization process just simply takes time, and humans aren’t terribly patient creatures.  We want what we want….the way that we want….and when we want it!  That can be very frustrating and unfair to our dogs!

Dogs Aren’t Robots!!  They Learn at the Rate That They Learn!

None of the dogs that I train are robots.  They can think, feel, experience and choose.  They aren’t something that we program and then they spit out consistent data in a weekend. Yes, we can “program” the behavior that we want to see, over time and with consistency.  But unlike a computer, dogs can think and choose what they want to do!  If we want positive results, we have to respect our dogs for who they are:  living, breathing, thinking, feeling, creatures!

Dogs learn at the rate that they learn.  So do you and I!  Some complex concepts are easier for me to grasp than others.  In that regard, it’s no different for Rugby James as well!  Some dogs can quickly problem solve and figure out a new behavior lickity split.  Others take more repetition.  Neither one is bad, wrong or stupid.  They just are what they are!

For good training success, think of being a partner or teammate with your dog, rather than looking at your dog as a “minion” or something that you can boss around.  Ain’t no dog got time for that!  You’ll feel far less frustrated with the process if your dog is your partner and you’re building a team with him.  Trust me on this one!!

I just love the look on Rugby’s face here. He is SO happy and focused on learning. This photo screams that we’re a team, and that’s what my training is all about!

Rugby James has plenty of opinions on this subject!  Let’s hear what he has to say!

Rugby James

I’m a lil dogger what has had lotsa different homes and mamas, so I know about these fings.  I has lived at the shelter before, on deaf row even, what means that I was gonna get putted to sleep when I was just a lil pupper and not even all growed up!!  I gotted fished out of the shelter by a rescue group, but then I hadda go to sum new foster homes before I gotted my forever home wif the Mama I gots now.

When you’re a lil dogger what has been in lotsa different homes, you understand fings in the Upright world purty good.  Uprights like you and then they doesn’t like you.  Sumtimes they does fings a certain way for a while, and then they changes fings and does it a completely different way….just when you’re trying to figure out what the first way is!!

Sumtimes, if there’s a bunch of Uprights what lives in the house, sum of them does fings a certain way, and then sum of the udders does it a different way too….only it’s really hard to know what way they all want you to do stuff.  It’s like a game you can’t win what gots lotsa different rules to it, and the rules changes every single time you play the game!

Doggers isn’t dumb critters.  Nopawdy wantsa play a game when they can’t win.  So sumtimes, doggers just stops playing the games, what can make Uprights mad.  It can get you dumped at a shelter or gived back or gived away! Uprights expect doggers to be mind readers and just “know” how you’re supposed to act.  I always tried so hard to figure it out, only when I maked mistakes, I gotted yelled at a big much, what hurted my feelings.  When my feelings gotted hurted, it was really hard for me to trust the Uprights again when they was nice to me after they was all done being mad.

The Mama always tells me what a smart lil pupper I am.  I fink I’m purty smart too!  I try really, really hard to get fings right, and to do the fings what I knows that the Mama likes and wants from me.  I know lotsa words and what specific fing I’m supposed to do when I hears those specific words.  And the Daddy uses the very same rules, so nuffing changes between them what makes it a lot easier for me to know what to do!

It taked me a long time to trust the Mama on account of the udder Mamas and Daddies teached me how flaky Uprights can be. When the rules always changes, and when a lil dogger doesn’t understand and can’t figure out what to do, the world can really be a scary place.

But, I want you to listen to the Mama in this lil movie where I was working a puzzle.  Isn’t she a good coach?  Doesn’t she encourage good?  I lubs the happy, escited sound she gots in her voice, and even when I mess up, she doesn’t fuss at me.  She just helps direct me to the right fing to do.

The best fing, is that when I work for the Uprights at my house, they gives me a good paycheck for that work.  I doesn’t get snacks for basic fings what I has learned really good, but the Mama is always teaching me new fings, so I always getsa chance to earn snacks wif new stuff I’m learning or for puzzle play.

Next time, we’ll tell you how we faded snacks sos you can learn to do it the right way!

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