by Mike Stewart | on June 18th, 2009 | in Features, The Wildrose Way, Training
Our training is based on a positive-reinforcement methodology, although we do use occasional corrections (positive punishment) to build boundaries and stop unwanted behaviors. These are the five reinforcers we use as rewards. The key is figuring out which rewards work best for your dog and then making sure that each of these rewards are earned and never given indescriminately. The dog must learn that all of these rewards come through you.
- The Treat: Food is a primary motivator. That means the dog doesn’t need to be taught to think of it as a good thing or reward. At Wildrose, we’ll use treats to begin training dogs and then move to other, secondary reinforcers (below) that have certain advantages over treats. One thing we’ve noticed over the years is that an over-reliance on treats can lead to latent dysfunctions like nipping at the trainer’s hand, dropping bumpers prematurely to go for the treat, or sniffing the ground to find any dropped morsels.
- The Retrieve: For many breeds and just about every retriever, this is also a primary motivator. Many animals will even value the retrieve more highly than a food reward. Some dogs may not view the retrieve as a reward, but many of those will view an object like a fun bumper or a Kong as a reward. Retrieves (and any other object you want to give your dog) must be earned; impatience, nosiness, breaking, or any disruptive behavior should never be rewarded.
- Affection: A vigorous pet—always on the shoulder or back and not on the head or belly—and enthusiastic “good dog” is a huge motivator when properly timed. Indiscriminate petting is seen as a weakness in the pack hierarchy. Save the petting and affection to reward the best behaviors during training. Affection and verbal praise are secondary motivators in that the dog learns to like them by their association with fun things like retrieving and eating.
- The Bridge: We’ve talked about the bridge before. It’s a sound or cue that bridges the time between the behavior one wishes to reinforce and the resulting reward. Many use a clicker. In dolphin training a high-pitched whistle is commonly used. At Wildrose we use a verbal “good” quickly and powerfully delivered at the same time the behavior we wish to reinforce occurs. With young pups, the bridge comes just before a primary motivator like a food treat or a reward. By association with those primary motivators, the bridge becomes a powerful motivator of its own. And the best part about instilling a motivating bridge word is that you can project it into the field to a dog that’s working. We can’t do that with food. A dog that hears “good!” just as he’s obeyed a good whistle stop or cast knows that he’s done the right thing and that a reward like affection is coming.
- Inclusion: For most dogs the opportunity to be with their owner (the pack leader) and the pack, whether it be other dogs or the family, is a powerful motivator and is reassuring to the dog. Banishment from the pack is certainly a form of correction of an inappropriate behavior much the same as it is for a child when put into time out. The disruptive dog is removed from the activities and is only allowed to re-join when they demonstrate the desired behaviors.
As with any reinforcers or corrections, it is imperative that they are properly timed, consistently applied, not overused to the point that their value is diluted. Normally our reinforcers are progressive. Only the better behaviors are to be recognized to promote behavior modification. In all cases, training is repetition and consistency to the point of habit formation. As always, remember Wildrose Law #5, “Make haste slowly.”
by Mike Stewart | on May 11th, 2009 | in The Wildrose Way
No matter what discipline—hunting, service, adventure—you’re training your dog for, he’ll require one very important behavior for success: focus.
Focus is a byproduct of patience, concentration, and biddability (the dog’s willingness to please). If a young dog lacks appropriate focus, he’s neither going to learn nor retain what you teach him. Eye contact is the benchmark of focus. I like to see the dog stare straight into my eyes for a few seconds, awaiting instruction. (This means you can’t train with sunglasses, handlers!)
If you hold the dog’s gaze, you’re a leader and your instructions will likely get the attention they require. Learning will take place. Own the eyes and you own the dog. No eye contact, on the other hand, is indicative of an independent nature, lack of concentration, or avoidance. Before you can go on to any other training, build focus.
I look for three levels of focus in training, each occurring at different stages. Here’s stage I. We’ll get to stages II and III in future posts:
With the young pup—three to five months old—I expect brief but direct eye contact. At this age, I’ll use a primary motivator like a treat, food at feeding time, or the youngster’s favorite bumper. (One of the reasons I withhold chew toys is because they lessen the value of the object as a reward if the pup can have access to them any old time. This way, we reinforce that all good things—bumpers included—come through me.) When your youngster offers eye contact, immediately reward the behavior with a verbal, “good,” and a quick treat. Once the pup understands how to sit patiently, set the pup off the ground on a bench. Hold the treat out to the side at arm’s length. Remain perfectly still and quiet. This must be a voluntary action on the part of the pup. When the pup glances at your eyes, reward him/her with a verbal, “good,” and the treat. The pup quickly learns the association: eye contact = verbal marker = reward. Gradually extend the duration of the eye contact required to earn the reward.
I’m very cautious about the use—or, rather the overuse—of treats for training retrievers. Treats often promote mouthing problems and later delivery difficulties. Remember Wildrose Law #4: Do not condition in a problem that must be trained out later. Limit the use of treats by moving to the bumpers, praise, and pets as rewards as soon as the dog is willing to offer behaviors for those other motivators.
Next month, I’ll share with you Focus Stages II and III. Focus is a must for handling retrievers, adventure dogs, and alert dogs. These dogs are biddable team players requiring an interdependent relationship with their pack leader. Eye contact is the first step.