I attended the WOOF Training and Behaviour Conference recently. It was organised by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners and it was a truly amazing conference. The highlight for me, and many, judging by their comments, was hearing Dr Susan Friedman speak. Dr Friedman is a professor at the University of Utah and is a pioneer in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis in companion animals.
Dr Friedman summed up her philosophy in one simple sentence, which I’m paraphrasing – Control the environment, not the animal, so that the animal makes better decisions and then reinforce those choices to make them more likely in the future.
To a dog, there is no difference to it jumping up or sitting as long as the behaviour is reinforcing. The only judgement put on the behaviour is by ourselves. We think of jumping on people as a “bad” behaviour and sitting as a “good” behaviour. To the dog, however, if both or either of those behaviours are reinforced i.e. they work for the dog, the dog will continue to do them.
One of the points Dr Friedman made was that the ability to make our own choices is very reinforcing. Imagine you had the most amazing life you could think of. You had all the money you ever needed, met the most interesting people, did the most fun and exciting hobbies and activities, ate most delicious and healthy food, had the best friends and a fantastic house with every gadget you could think of. Now, imagine that same life, but someone told you when to eat, when to do your hobbies, when to watch a movie and which one, when to see your friends and for how long and when to go on holiday and to where. The same, great life, might somehow now seem less satisfying. This is because we wouldn’t be in charge of our own destiny or decisions. Dogs need to make their own choices, at least some of the time. It empowers them and makes them happy. It’s our job as their owners to make sure the choices they make are appropriate and safe and to then reinforce those choices.
We can do this by managing the environment. If your dog tends to run off when you let him off the leash or bolt out of the door when it’s open, it’s because there is something reinforcing about doing this, otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. Now, if we put a leash on the dog when we open the door, we’ve now manged the dog’s access to the environment and her ability to self reinforce. We can now wait until the dog does something more appropriate, such as stop pulling or sit, and then reinforce this e.g. with food or access to the outside. This way, she then learns that dashing out the door no longer works, but sitting does, so she’ll offer this instead. I’ll give some more specific examples of this in upcoming blogs.
When the dog does make the right choice, we need to reinforce this, heavily and frequently. Think more in terms of reinforcement than rewards. When we use the term “reward” I think there is a tendency to view it as payment or compensation for the behaviour which has just been performed. What we are actually doing, is using the food “reward” or game/ball etc, to make the behaviour more likely to happen in the next time. When the dog offers the same behaviour again, we then have a further opportunity to reinforce this. This makes behaviours very solid. What happens quite often, and I include myself in this until recently, is the tendency to try to reduce the amount of reinforcement too quickly. What we are trying to do is build up a balance in a behavioural bank account.
Every time we reinforce a behaviour, we are making a small deposit into the account. When our dog performs a behaviour we want, and we don’t reinforce it, we are making a withdrawal. Unfortunately, the withdrawals are bigger than the deposits and if we don’t have an adequate balance in the first place, we can very quickly become overdrawn. To further illustrate, imagine you win the Euromillions lottery of £140m ( about Euro 150m or $200m). With that money, you make a £2m investment and you lose your money. Although it’s £2m, you still have £138m to fall back on so you probably won’t be too upset (which is pretty ridiculous given the amount of money we are talking about). Now, say it’s two days before payday and you only have £30 left to last you the two days and you need to pay a bill and buy food. If you lose £20 of that, the impact is so much bigger than losing £2m from the previous example, because the £20 has so much more relative value.
To apply this analogy to dog training, every time we reinforce a behaviour we are making a small deposit into the “trust” account and make that behaviour more likely to reoccur. If we have a huge reinforcement history, built over months and thousands of reinforcements, we will build a huge balance. Our dog trusts us as there is classical conditioning occurring at the same time. What then happens is there comes a time where, for whatever reason, we are unable to reinforce the dog. We are cashing in some of that balance, but because it is so big, the trust between us and out dog isn’t affected (the lottery example). If we don’t have that same reinforcement history, we try to make a much larger withdrawal relative to the balance (the £20 loss before payday example) and the dog’s trust in us is affected.
Make loads of deposits into that account with your dog. He will do more of the behaviours you want him to do, less of the behaviours you don’t want him to do and your relationship will be stronger because he will trust you more. Until next time.
John McGuigan, Glasgow Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant