The One Treat Blunder

The One Treat Blunder

Be an Event Planner Instead!

She called her dog. After much effort on her part, he finally came. Barely slowing down as he reached her, he grabbed the treat she offered, then took off like a flash. Most other times he would totally ignore her when she called him, no matter how many times she yelled his name.
Recall, or coming when called, is one of the Top Three Basic Skills dog owners tend to struggle with the most (the other two are walking nicely on leash and greeting people without jumping). When I meet with clients, I need to get an idea of what their typical process is, how they have been doing things. I pay close attention to the dog, too. It takes some detective work and observation to understand what patterns have been set and where they need tweaking in order to achieve success.

A “treat” is not always a “treat” is not always reinforcing.
The weak link is almost always the consequence, e.g., the “reinforcement” aspect of “positive reinforcement.” If we remind ourselves that “consequence drives behavior,” then we should look there first when we don’t see skills take shape. We have a lot of control over consequence, so let’s use it to our… and our dogs’ advantages.

What is Positive Reinforcement, anyway?
“Positive reinforcement occurs when a certain behavior results in a positive outcome, making the behavior likely to be repeated in the future. This…  can be used to teach and strengthen behaviors.”
We often get stuck assuming that, by the simple virtue of offering our dog a treat, we are practicing “positive reinforcement” and therefore the dog should respond in a predictable, compliant way. We are on the right track, but if the behavior is not getting stronger, our treat - the consequence - is not reinforcing to our dog, and something must change.

Turn the Reinforcement into an EVENT!
One measly treat is simply not enough when building behaviors such as recall. We need to add value to the consequence, and we can do it in many ways:
1. Move!!! Dogs love to chase, to move, to be active. Invite your dog to chase you.
2. Tap into “Dog as Predator.” Toss that treat so your pup must hunt it down and “kill”/consume it. It’s remarkable how much more valuable that same, individual treat will become. Better yet, turn it into a scavenger hunt for a handful of  treats. I love to toss a bunch of treats into grass, hay, snow, leaves…. Dogs enjoy using their Scent Detection Superpower, and this game is a great way to incorporate it into a reinforcer.
3. Stretch out the reinforcement experience. The reinforcement event should last at least as long as it took for your dog to do the behavior. Think of it as throwing a party in your dog’s honor. Yes, this means that you will likely be spending more time reinforcing than the dog spends doing the behaviors. You will revel in the results!

4. Be unpredictable. You are the vending machine, and sometimes you’ll dispense a joyous game of “chase me!” and sometimes you’ll dispense a round-trip ticket to Paris (or whatever the doggie equivalent of that might be). The basic rule, though, is that your dog must find it highly desirable and there must be JOY.
Check out the “Train me Please” YouTube channel, “Whiplash” video.

What is a good reinforcer?
“Wow! How can I get more of THAT?!" He will quickly eat the treat then immediately orient back towards you; he will want the game of tug or chase or fetch to last longer; he will ask for more. A sign of a weak reinforcer is when your dog casually accepts what you offer, then turns and goes about his day. “Meh, I have better things to do.” Keep in mind that the reinforcer has to immediately follow the behavior.
I recently worked with a lovely adolescent dog who was acting her age (more independent, less likely to respond to cues than during puppyhood). Her recall, previously reinforced mostly with food, had deteriorated.
1. We tested a new toy with her inside - the “flirt pole.” She was CRAZY about this toy suspended from the end of a pole. She also had a very good “drop it” on cue.
2. We put her on a 25’ line and took her into a large, fenced-in area.
3. We gave her time to freely sniff about.
4. When we were sure she was ready, one of her owners called her, then started to run away. She chased him down and he immediately engaged her in a lengthy and rousing game of tug with the flirt pole.
5. The progression went from holding the long line to letting it drag to detaching it. There were other subtleties to making this successful, but this was the gist of the process.

Now… go out there and be an Event Planner for your dog!

    Happy Training!

Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed  
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine | 207-252-9352

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