Timing is Everything

In life, timing is everything. You could be offered the perfect, most amazing opportunity, but if the timing is bad, it’s all bad.  When you deliver tough news to someone, the time in which you do so matters. Timing is everything in life and it also matters when training dogs.

When I work with dogs, more likely than not I will use treats as reinforcement. In other words, food is their paycheck, but timing is key in order to use the food successfully.

Imagine these two scenarios when delivering treats:

Show Treat –> Call “come” –> Dog comes –> Deliver treat
Call “come”–> Dog comes —> Deliver treat

Do you see the difference? It’s important that you get the behavior first before delivering the reinforcement or even allowing him to see the treat: Why? Because in the first situation you are offering him a  bribe. What will end up happening with the first scenario, which is a frequent complaint that I hear from dog owners when they come the first night of class, is, “My dog will only lie down for a treat.” Or another classic one is that the dog only comes when he hears the owner shaking the bag of treats. These techniques are not good training methods nor will they give you the strong desired behaviors that I know you want.

“The timing, intensity and intervals of reinforcement all have direct consequences on learned behaviour. “ Bruce Fogle [The Dog’s Mind 100]

Another scenario that I often see is: a pet owner keeps their hand constantly in the bait bag (treat tote). So for example, the pet owner is working on eye contact while the dog is on the leash and the entire session the pet guardian has her hand in the treat bag awaiting the desired behavior. This too is poor timing when using treats as reinforcement.

If you train using the treat first before the cue or behavior, you will always be stuck doing so. With good training skills, a handler will wait for the desired behavior and then deliver the treat. Use timing to your advantage with reinforcement and you will be well on your way to gaining solid behaviors and the dog you’ve always wanted.

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Michelle Huntting
Building the bridge of communication between dog and pet guardian 

Treats, Money, and Motivation

I will often hear trainers proudly say, “I don’t use treats because I train in the REAL world.”

In the real world we go to work every day. One of my dad’s favorite lines is from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and it’s about money. George says to the angel Clarence, “It [money] comes in pretty handy down here, Bub.”

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Photo from It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s true. We need money for food so we can feed our kids, ourselves, and our dogs. We need money for gas in our car to even get to work or to get to the grocery store. We need money to pay for homes that we live in. Money comes in pretty handy. We live in the real world.

What if your boss says to you, “I decided that you should come to work every day for me and in return I am going to tell you at the end of the week, ‘Atta, boy!'” You would more than likely not return to work.

Money is a motivation and reinforcement for humans. We will do many things for money.

Dogs are living, breathing beings that have their own emotions, thoughts, dreams, and will. It is an unrealistic expectation that they will work just for their owner. You may really enjoy your boss. Heck, your boss may even be your friend, but you will need more than friendship or an “Atta boy” at the end of the week to show up to work every day.

Dog’s need motivation and reinforcement as well.

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When training dogs, there are so many different kinds of reinforcement, but at the top of the list is food.

Are we still living in the real world if food is a motivation for dogs? Yes, because the issue isn’t the treats or food. Bottom line, to get dogs to listen without any food we must first train with food

What I often hear pet owners say is, “I don’t want to use treats with my dog because I want him to listen to me.” Because that’s what I want for you too, I have listed a few tips on using food to reinforce and establish behaviors.

Timing Matters
The timing of treat delivery matters. Let’s say you cue your dog to “come” and start shaking the treat bag and he comes running inside. This is a great example of what not to do:

Cue behavior “come” –> Shake treat bag –> dog comes –> deliver treat

It’s important to deliver treats at the correct time because if the treats are shown or delivered as listed above, then you will be using treats as a bribe not as a reinforcer. If this is your pattern in training you will ALWAYS be stuck in this rut. If you want to always pull out a treat to get your dog to come or in a sit then continue this pattern. Don’t get stuck in a rut. This pattern will not take you down to the road called “he listens without food.”

Here is the pattern that will take you down the path of focus and reliable behavior:

Cue behavior “sit” –> Dog performs sit –> Deliver treat


Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce

If you have ever done weight training, you know that doing many reps will help build muscle. If you lift a weight one time and call it a day, it seems silly to even waste your time. You will never tone or build a muscle using one rep. You must condition your muscle with continuous repetitive motion.

If you give your dog one treat for a behavior that you liked, that is like doing one rep to build a muscle. Imagine though, that just like you might hit the gym hard for a month working on a specific area of your body, you decided to do this with your dog.

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For example, you are tired of your dog jumping on guests, so you decide that you are going to reinforce the behavior of sit. So twice a day you do three minute formal sessions. During these formal sessions you cue your dog to “sit” and once he does you deliver a treat. Outside of that time you notice every time he sits (without being cued), and you give him a treat.

For an entire month, you conditioned your dog with reinforcement of a particular behavior. At the end of the month, your dog will be sitting like a little statue. Reinforcement doesn’t happen with one repetition. You must build behaviors, just like you do your muscles.

Fading the Treats
When I first start teaching a desired behavior, chicken is falling out of the sky! But as we progress in the training process and “muscles” are built, I will simply maintain those “muscles” with random reinforcement (radon reinforcement is explained below).

It’s important to note that I wait until after a behavior is strongly established before I begin to decrease the amount of treats used in training.

Once a behavior is strongly established (the dog offers behavior all the time) then you can start the process of fading treats.

Random Reinforcement
I am not much of a gambler, but if you have ever been to a casino you know that the slot machines use random reinforcement. It’s brilliant, really. Humans, just like dogs, work for random reinforcement. The hope for the big win will keep people playing the game.

After establishing a strong behavior, it’s important that you randomly reinforce.

A great example of this, in my household, is the cue come. I incorporate training into my everyday life with my dogs, so sometimes I will give them a piece of steak or chicken when they come inside. Sometimes I will say, “Good Boy.” They never know when they will win big. With random reinforcement I keep them guessing as well as motivated.

Bottom Line
In the real world food isn’t the culprit;  it’s your friend. Use food wisely in training and you will be well on your way to having an engaged, well-behaved dog whether food is present or not.

Blog written by Michelle Huntting
www.michellehuntting.com