Training dogs using positive, no-force methods requires planning and careful thought.
Operant conditioning includes the positive reinforcement of a desired response or behavior, and withholding reinforcement for an undesired response/behavior.
A phenomenon to be aware of is an extinction burst, and novice dog handlers should plan for its occurrence and be prepared to deal with it.
An extinction burst is the increase or repetition of a behavior that was at one time, but no longer, strongly reinforced. Sometimes the extinction of a behavior is the desired goal -- a dog jumping up on the sliding glass door to gain access to the house is a good example. But the extinction of a desired behavior -- a dog going down on cue, perhaps -- can be frustrating and should be avoided.
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If an individual gets a soda out of a vending machine every day, he is accustomed to a reward (the soda) when he presses a button. If one day he presses that same button, but no soda appears, he will press the button again, and then again. If the soda still does not make an appearance, the button is pushed harder and with greater frequency -- this is the extinction burst -- before he finally walks away in disgust.
An extinction burst should be expected when extinguishing an undesired behavior from a dog's repertoire. If a client wishes to stop her dog from jumping on the sliding door to gain entrance into the house, I usually will start by recommending the behavior be ignored, rather than directly addressed or punished.
In order to be effective, care should be taken to emphasize the desired behavior -- not jumping up on the door -- by frequently opening the slider and allowing the dog access to the house when he is not jumping.
The criteria can be raised further by catching the dog in the act of sitting at the slider and rewarding that behavior by immediately opening the door.
What the client needs to be prepared for, however, is the inevitable increase in the jumping on the slider before the eventual absence of the behavior altogether. Clients not informed of this process will incorrectly conclude that the practice of ignoring the undesirable jumping and rewarding the standing or sitting at the door "does not work."
The unintentional extinguishing of a desired behavior is equally frustrating for the novice dog handler. I am constantly reminding my clients to continue to acknowledge, or "reward," desirable behavior in their dog, even once it becomes routine. The danger of taking what they consider "good" behavior in the dog for granted is that unreinforced behavior tends to fade.
When teaching the dog to "down" on cue, initial success is rewarded with treats and praise from the delighted owner, who realizes the dog really is smart, but then two months later, he is labeled as "stubborn" when he ignores repeated "down" cues. The real cause for nonresponse to the "down" cue is likely due to the absence of reward. The thought is, now that the dog has learned it, he should just do it when prompted, every time, without reward. This is how a machine operates -- not a thinking, feeling and logical dog.
So, do treats need to be given every time a dog does "down" on cue in order to prevent the behavior from fading? Although dogs around the world would answer with a joyous bark of "Yes!" the fact is that treats are not necessary to keep a response to a cue reliable, but reinforcement is.
Novice dog handlers mistakenly define a reward solely as a treat, something edible, but this is hardly the case. Rewards can vary greatly, depending on what motivates the individual dog. For some, the toss of a ball or a quick game of tug is a high level reinforcer; for others, a belly rub or a good scratch behind the ears is highly prized. But what every dog has in common is the need for acknowledgment.
So, to keep those desired responses to your cues reliable in your dog, take a second to acknowledge every correct response you get, with a verbal marker, the click of your clicker and/or eye contact, attention and praise, with an occasional super-reward of a treat or toss of a ball. The result will be consistent compliance to your cues, and irrefutable proof that your dog is, in fact, a canine genius.
Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.