The human half of the dog-human team is important. Beyond the love we give our dogs and how we meet their needs, there are specific skills we can improve on to help our dogs learn more successfully.
You can be better for your teammates if your timing is better and if you understand how reinforcement works. Dogs are as reliable with us as we are with them; the reliability of any given behavior increases at the same rate as its reinforcement history does.
Your furry teammates enjoy playing with you, so make time for play. It’s good to accomplish goals, but if you’re not having any fun, it’s just a struggle — and nobody enjoys struggling.
As training starts with us, we must set the example for our learners. To be a better teammate, we need:
Great timing: Having good timing is great, but having great timing is beautiful. There are certain moments when a dog’s behavior that we find desirable occurs. A good human teammate stays engaged and is ready to mark and reinforce desirable behaviors as they happen, so as to have those exact moments associated with a paired future verbal cue. This is why we need good timing.
To remember to mark: Marking behavior is to give a signal to a learner (your dog) after a behavior occurs. The signal can be a verbal “Yes” or a click with a clicker. The timing of marking a behavior is like taking a perfect sunset photograph right as the sun hits the horizon. The sun is setting on its own, all you can do is be prepared to mark the exact desired moment that you enjoy the sun setting that you want to capture in time.
To always reinforce: The positive marker is then followed by a reinforcer. A reinforcer is something your dog finds rewarding, that she enjoys. Ideally it is something tangible you can give to her within a few seconds after using the signal marker of approval — like a tasty treat or a favorite toy.
Disclaimer: As with everything, there is a light and dark side. That said, I do not believe in non-reward markers, or negative markers. Pointing out what someone is doing wrong does not help with learning what they can improve upon on the path of doing anything in a better way. I understand this human linguistic habit, I just do not use them in how I communicate.
I use continuous reinforcement when introducing a new behavior. Each marked desired behavior gets a reinforcer. Once the learner understands what’s going on, I then evolve (shift) to variable reinforcement, which means switching around between ratios of 1:2, 1:5, 1:1 and 1:3. I want the dogs I am training to be motivated, so not giving something each time but doing so variably increases motivation.
I adjust to each individual learner. I can tell if the dog is frustrated that I am not issuing enough reinforcers when I lose her attention or focus. I then increase my rate of reinforcement to keep her happily involved.
However, there are certain high priority behaviors, like recall, that always get a reinforcer from me.
I use a mix of primary and secondary reinforcers. A typical primary reinforcer is something tangible, like food, which is both accessible and everybody needs it. A secondary reinforcer is something that is associated with a positive consequence or outcome, like praise, such as saying “Good girl!”
Toys also fall into the category of secondary reinforcers, as the dog associates feel-good emotions of play with certain toys. My youngest dog learns really well when I use a ball in certain situations as a reinforcer. For dogs who love a certain toy, the toy can then play the role of a primary or tangible reinforcer instead of an item of food.
Why make learning fun?
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for dogs, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of puppyhood.”
Fred Rogers said this statement about children, and it is one of my favorite quotes of his, but I changed two words as it rings true for dogs, too. This very principle can easily be understood and is important to keep in mind when we are helping dogs with learning something new or practicing something we have previously introduced.
If your dog is ever struggling when learning, lower the criteria and make it more simple. Sometimes that means taking a break. For example, if you’re trying to walk your dog and she is just so excited and pulls toward everything, that doesn’t mean there needs to be a battle of wills. We need to understand our dog’s needs in the moment. What is the function of the behavior (the pulling)? If it is dangerous, we need to manage it; if it’s not dangerous, it’s OK that in this moment things are not working out as planned. I love to have a plan, I love to achieve goals — that doesn’t mean they are going to happen immediately or go as planned.
It is perfectly OK, and sometimes it is the absolute best idea, to stop if things aren’t working out well. You can always go back and try again. When things aren’t working out and everyone is frustrated, learning is less likely to happen.
Our dogs are never truly giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time. There’s no need to give them a hard time about having a hard time.
There are lots of ways of turning learning into games: recall games, find-it games, wait-and-go games like red light/green light, take it/drop it to trade and many more. Be creative about helping learning happen.
I also believe in recess, keeping sessions short, breaking up the time with play and having fun. Lots of learning happens when we’re having fun.
I absolutely love this quote from NBA Hall of Fame coach and player Phil Jackson about teamwork: “The strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each individual member is the team.” Understand that you are a member of a team with your dogs for life. Your teammates rely on you to be at your best. Go, team!
Differential reinforcement is reinforcing an incompatible or alternative behavior. This is why a good human teammate must remain engaged. You need to keep your focus on desired behaviors. If your dog is doing something you do not enjoy her doing, request her to do something else instead, and reinforce that desired behavior. For example, ask your dog to sit instead of jumping up on you.
This is not reinforcing or rewarding bad behavior. All behavior has a function. To your dog, what she is doing is not bad, she is a dog doing dog things. Differential reinforcement is teaching a learner what is desirable in any given situation so that it is more likely to be repeated.