Positive Reinforcement Training: The Wags & Wiggles Approach

Wags and Wiggles offers many positive reinforcement training programsWags & Wiggles | Positive Reinforcement Training

One of these training programs is our Board and Train service! We have 2 week and 4 week training periods where dogs come to stay at Wags and Wiggles. They learn new behaviors, work through problem behaviors, and increase their socialization with both people and other dogs.

One recent student to join our Board and Train graduates was a small terrier that we will call Phoebe. Phoebe was recently adopted from a local animal shelter and was about 2 years old. Her new owners had owned terriers before, but this new addition to their family came with some surprise challenges.

Phoebe was a very sweet dog, but fearful of new people, other dogs, and any kind of handling. She would growl and show her teeth if you crossed her threshold of comfort. She would sometimes bark at other dogs on walks. And she appeared to have never learned any basic obedience manners in her life before being adopted.

Being kind and devoted owners, Phoebe’s owners knew that corrective methods of training would not help their new family member. They decided to focus on positive reinforcement training to help build Phoebe’s confidence and entrusted the certified trainers at Wags and Wiggles to help them accomplish this task.

Using a carefully designed training plan, the trainers at Wags and Wiggles helped Phoebe to work through these issues and gain some basic obedience commands. How could we accomplish so much in two short weeks? Through the power of positive reinforcement training, effective management, and some desensitization work. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is! What do these terms mean and how are they so effective?

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement is a term used in behavior science that means you add some thing (+) that reinforces or increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. These rewards can be anything that the dog enjoys, such as kibble, treats, balls, tug toys, chase games, praise, or pets and scratches behind the ears. The possible rewards in a dog’s life are endless. Anything that the dog finds enjoyable or that they want access to can be turned into a reward.

When we first begin training a new behavior, treats or food rewards are typically used. Food rewards are called primary reinforcers. You don’t have to teach a dog to need to eat. That need is inherent in all animals. Using bite sized pieces of food allows us to get many repetitions in and helps to gain mastery quickly.

Clicker Training

In order to maximize our time with each dog, we use clicker training to mark correct behaviors. Using clickers gives us faster results because we are able to communicate so clearly with our learners. Clickers are used to mark the precise moment that a dog performs the task we are training. When the dog hears the click, she knows that whatever she was doing at that moment is what we are looking for and the click is always followed by a treat.

For example, with Phoebe, one of the first things we taught her was “touch.” Her trainer would offer out a hand with two fingers extended. When Phoebe got curious about the hand, she used her nose to check it out. When her nose came in contact with the extended fingers, the trainer would click and follow it with a treat. Phoebe soon learned that putting her nose on a pair of extended fingers led to the click and treat!

This form of obtaining behavior is called capturing. The clicker “captures” the moment the behavior happens without any intermediate steps or luring the dog into position. There are two other forms of obtaining behavior- shaping and luring.

Shaping

An example of shaping with Phoebe is when we taught her to go to her mat. The final behavior for “go to your mat” is a dog that walks to a mat, lays down on the mat with their whole body (or most of it if they are a big dog) on the mat, and stays there until released. To teach this, we shape it in small steps or “approximations.” We set up each step with different criteria for what earns a click. It is important to have clearly defined criteria for each step so that the trainer knows what behavior to click for.

Phoebe’s first criteria was to show any level of interest in the mat on the floor. She sniffed it at first as most dogs are inclined to do. That was clicked and treated 2-3 times before we changed the criteria. Next, she needed to step on the mat with one foot. So, we stopped clicking for sniffing the mat. When that no longer resulted in a reward for her, Phoebe tried sniffing a different area of the mat and accidentally stepped on the corner with her front foot. This earned a click! Even though it was an accident, we can use that to shape behavior. And so, it continued.

Soon she had all four paws on the mat. We eventually waited until she was targeting the mat with all four paws and then criteria changed again. Four paws on the mat no longer resulted in a click. This time she needed to offer something more. When a dog learns the game of offering behaviors, they are often quick about trying new things. Some dogs will sit in this situation, but Phoebe immediately laid down. She was given a click and a jackpot reward!

A jackpot is a reward of 3-4 treats in a row to help the dog understand that they have hit the big time and done the exact behavior we wanted them to perform. Sometimes we will also jackpot when the dog makes a particularly good choice in the face of extreme distraction.

Luring

The last form of obtaining behavior is by luring. Luring is simply using a treat or toy to manipulate the dog into position by having the dog follow their nose. Many people use lures to get their dog to lay down. We usually like to try using one of the other methods before luring because the dog is focused on themselves and their body instead of the treat in front of their nose. Occasionally, fading out the lure is difficult. This is why many owners have dogs that only lay down when a hand points at the ground in front of their nose.

In Learning Theory, there are four quadrants. Positive reinforcement is one of those quadrants and one the trainers at Wags and Wiggles strive to use exclusively. Positive reinforcement training builds relationships and trust between dogs and people. Sometimes use of the other quadrants, particularly positive punishment, leads to a breakdown of trust and can result in an unhappy dog and owner.

What is positive punishment? Positive punishment is the addition (+) of something unpleasant to the dog that punishes or decreases the likelihood of a behavior to happen. A leash correction, that old school method of popping the leash tight and yanking on the dog’s collar, is an example of positive punishment. Adding (+) the discomfort of the collar against the dog’s neck to decrease the behavior of pulling on the leash (punishment).

Negative Reinforcement

The other two quadrants are negative reinforcement and negative punishment.

Negative reinforcement is the removal (-) of something unpleasant in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior to happen. Wags and Wiggles trainers do not employ the use of negative reinforcement because it would require us to either apply something unpleasant to the dog, or place them in a situation they do not like. Neither of these situations is conducive to building strong, trust-filled relationships.

We do however, utilize negative punishment. Negative punishment is the removal (-) of something enjoyable to decrease the likelihood of a behavior to happen.

Negative Punishment

While the terminology sounds harsh, this is a very simple and kind form of changing behavior. One example is a time out. Going back to our friend Phoebe, she quickly acclimated to the daycare staff. Each of our Board and Train dogs spends time in our daycare play groups if their behavior is appropriate for the group. Part of Phoebe’s training included being around new people (rotating daycare staff) and other dogs.

Phoebe learned to absolutely love one of our small dog room supervisors so much that she didn’t want to share him with any other dogs. She would stand at his feet and guard his legs from any other approaching dogs. This was very reinforcing for her. She would growl and bark at approaching dogs and they would leave!

This behavior is common in many dogs. Protecting things they find important is called resource guarding. So how do Wags and Wiggles staff address this? With a time out.

Each time Phoebe attempted to guard her beloved staff member, he would leash her up and take her to a puppy pen for a 5 minute break. He was taking away (negative -) his presence that she so loved to decrease the likelihood that she would repeat this behavior (punishment). She soon learned that guarding her human actually made her lose him! She soon stopped guarding him and learned that other dogs being nearby wouldn’t make her lose her friend.

Counter Conditioning

One other aspect of many Board and Train students’ training programs involves some form of acclimating to what could be an unpleasant experience. This counter conditioning and desensitization most often manifests in clipping toenails. Very few dogs come to us feeling happy or comfortable with having their nails clipped. Sometimes even touching their feet at all is an issue.

This was the case with sweet Phoebe. She loved to sit on our laps and receive pets and ear scratches. But the moment a foot was touched, she was instantly on the defensive. She would wriggle, squirm, and roll like an alligator to get out of your arms. It was a fearful response and not one we wanted her to feel at all.

Counter conditioning is the process by which a trainer helps the dog to create a new emotional response to what used to be a fearful trigger. Grasping Phoebe’s paw was a fearful trigger that we wanted to replace with a happy feeling for her.

Desensitization

Desensitization is the process of exposing the dog to the fearful trigger at a distance that does not create the fearful response. By keeping the dog under threshold (the dog’s tolerance level where they maintain a calm and relaxed emotional state), we can slowly increase the amount of the trigger presented, or bring the trigger closer to the dog.

These two techniques are used in conjunction to help dogs feel more comfortable about anything in their lives that they find scary, but are necessary for their health, or unavoidable in day to day life. Phoebe did not leave her Board and Train stay feeling happy about toenail trims, but she did accomplish the ability to relax in her trainer’s lap while her paws were handled.

Premack Principle

Many dog owners ask us at the end of their dog’s Board and Train stay if they will have to carry around a clicker and treats for the rest of their dog’s life. And the answer is no! We use these tools to create new behaviors. Once the behaviors are established, the click can be replaced by a verbal marker like the word “Yes!” and then followed with a non-food reward. Rewards can be anything from a game of tug to the chance to go say hi to a friendly neighbor.

One technique that we employ to help our dogs learn to respond to cues in the face of distractions or other challenges is called the “Premack Principle.” This fancy phrase is another way of saying that you must eat your vegetables before you may have dessert – Grandma’s Law!

With Phoebe, we used the Premack Principle toward the end of her stay to help with her loose leash walking behavior. Phoebe loves to check out all the smells along the sidewalk, grass, and bushes. But loose leash walking requires the dog to stay connected to her handler and not forge ahead to check out that next good smell. When out for a walk, if Phoebe showed particular interest in a bush we passed, her trainer would ask her to “leave it.”

Leave it means: turn your head away from that object and give me eye contact. Performing a “leave it” in the face of a bush full of appealing smells is a tough task for any dog. When Phoebe turned her head away and gave her trainer eye contact, it was marked with a “Yes!” and “Ok, go sniff!” That is Premack in a nutshell.

Behavior Chains

Another technique toward decreasing our reliance on clickers and treats is to begin to ask our dogs for chains of behavior. Running an agility course is an example of a dog performing a behavior chain. Each behavior (obstacle) performed correctly triggers the next cue to be given. The second cue becomes the reward for the previous behavior.

In the case of Phoebe, she was learning this in ignoring other dogs in the lobby. When a dog came into the lobby on her first day, Phoebe would bark. Through the course of her stay, she came to learn that the appearance of new dogs in her space meant great things were coming for her. She would see the other dog, and check in with her trainer instead of barking.

At first, we rewarded just the check in with treats. As her ability to ignore the other dogs became stronger, we started asking her to do other behaviors, too. The new dog would enter the room. Phoebe would look at the dog, then offer eye contact to her trainer. He would ask her to do a hand touch, and then click and treat. She was now performing a two-behavior chain!

Behavior chains can also work against us as dog owners. It is a common problem in the case of dogs that jump up on people. We accidentally train the dog a chain of behaviors: dog jumps up, we say “off,” dog gets their paws on the floor, we say “sit,” dog sits, and we reward with attention and praise.

What many people do not realize is that this sequence is not just rewarding the sit, but the entire chain of behavior starting with the initial jump. The dog is then learning to get attention and praise, he can jump on people to trigger the chain of events leading to his pets and praise. And this is where the last piece of the training plan puzzle fits in: management.

Management

Effective management is critical in training any dog. We must prevent problem behaviors from occurring in the first place. Otherwise we run the risk of creating unwanted behavior chains or allowing the dog to self-reinforce and solidify those behaviors themselves.

Using a tie-down to prevent a dog from jumping up stops the chain before it can even begin. We use crates for unsupervised dogs to prevent inappropriate chewing or house soiling. Long lines are a form of management to prevent a dog from running away when training long distance recalls.

For Phoebe, digging in the trash was a self-reinforcing behavior. She found good stuff in those trash cans! And because we don’t know her past, she could have needed to survive that way before her adoption and has a long history of successful trash foraging.

We must use management by either putting the trash can behind a closed door, or perhaps using a baby gate to block off access to the room where the trash is located. Her family understood this need and have implemented a strategy at home to prevent her access to their trash cans.

Board and train – a recipe for success!

All Board and Train stays include a private lesson at the end of the dog’s stay. Families can learn all the tools and tricks they need to continue their dog’s progress and have maximum success at home. Our Board and Train programs also include a follow up private lesson in the owner’s home. We can help troubleshoot any home management issues and build on established obedience cues.

In addition, Board and Train programs include a 5-week group obedience class for the family to attend. learn even more skills to help their dog become the family companion they desire. All of this together is a great recipe for a dog to become a well-mannered family member!

Interested in our Board and Train program? Call us and speak to a trainer today or fill out our free Board & Train evaluation form!

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