Rewards and Reinforcements

Well it has been a few years in the making but finally here it is …ta-dah! My website!

Examples of training treatsWhy has it taken so long – you may well ask. I have spent the last few years digging very deep into my dog training and behaviour knowledge to really analyse what it is I actually know, what is worth keeping and what needed a good dusting down and a polish! Following many happy years training in West Sussex, I felt that I needed to become a little more scientific in my own understanding of what I am teaching. It is all very well to “know it” but do you “understand it” and I think that is really what sets apart a gifted amateur from a true professional. I have had a very interesting time and met some truly amazing and talented trainers and dogs (and chickens come to think of it!). It was a revelation to realise what incredible depth of knowledge I already had stored away under the cobwebs of my brain but also to see how science and technological advances are now able to show us even more about how our dogs think, learn and feel.

This is a journey of discovery and understanding, there is so much more for us all to learn and I hope you will join me as we develop our teaching and handling skills in an environment of empathy and respect for our beloved pets.

One of my biggest challenges was to really commit to the principles of ‘clicker training’. It had been bobbing around at the back of my mind for so many years that I am ashamed to admit how long! I was already a positive reinforcement trainer but I had not crossed over to the “thinking dog” method. I discovered that many people feel the way I felt in that it was just for doing tricks or for heelwork to music fanatics but I certainly couldn’t get my head round having a clicker and food in my hand as well as whistle, lead, dummies, etc – surely that’s ‘hard-core multi-tasking’! Buckle, daughter of Mango, has been my crossover dog and her patience with me has been divine – which is rare for a cocker! – just kidding! We have played games, learned tricks, done some basic agility and adapted exercises for gundog training. This has culminated in a wonderful time on a local walked up shoot hunting beautifully, stopping to shot and delivering to hand. I couldn’t be more proud of her!

So with these newsletters I want to try to share with you some core messages that will help to improve your handling and training skills at the same time as building a fantastic relationship with your dog. If you would like an interesting and thought provoking journey with me where we can discuss these techniques and develop ideas, make sure you sign up for my newsletter and join my facebook page where I will also share articles of interest that come my way. Most of the time I will write from the perspective of gundog training but this is not to the exclusion of any other type of dog or activity, it is merely my specialism, and the majority of it can be adapted to all dogs.

Examples of toys to use as reinforcementLet’s start with Rewards and Reinforcements. The definition of a Reinforcement in operant learning terms is something that will make the behaviour more likely to recur. So what is a reinforcer for our dogs? Well, that is one of the most magical questions in dog training! It is Whatever Your Dog Likes! If you are in charge of the reinforcement, you will be able to decide which behaviours will be reinforced and which will not.

Without getting too bogged down in the technical jargon, think about the sorts of rewards and reinforcements your dog likes and try putting them into an order of heirarchy. This is an exercise to help you understand what it is your dog likes – not what you think he likes! – and how you can then use these things to train your dog. Do two lists, one being a food list and try out different foods in different environments. Will your dog sit just as quickly for a piece of kibble as he will for a piece of cheese, or chicken, or liver, or sardine cake or ….. A piece of kibble might work in the kitchen but you might need something a bit more valuable in the woods. Your second list will be more functional. What does your dog like and in what situation? For example, chasing a ball, a tug session, chest scratch, retrieve, sniff and search out, come into the house/sitting room, jump up for a cuddle (Mango’s favourite). Bear in mind other functional rewards that are more transient. For example, your dog wants to go out into the garden, open the door, ask for a sit and then release him into the garden – the release is the reinforcement!

This is your list for your dog and in many ways will become the centre-piece of your individual training guide. From this you will start to determine which rewards/reinforcements will work depending upon the circumstances and the particular exercise you are teaching. As your dog realises that you are in charge of the reinforcements you will start to become more of a focus for him – you have just taken a massive leap in your teaching skills! Remember we are teaching and training at the moment – these rewards will continue to be used intermittently throughout your dog’s life to help to keep him motivated and accurate but they will be faded out as training progresses and the work itself becomes the reinforcer. But all that is for later on.

Enjoy compiling your reinforcements record and let me know via my facebook page what you have discovered about your dog. I look forward to hearing from you.

Caveat: Please be careful not to feed your dog foods that can be potentially harmful. I know it sounds obvious but there are things that can be overlooked like chocolate, dried fruit, too much liver, etc.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of the fantastic teachers/fellow trainers for their help and advice (and laughs!): Val Harvey (Bert), Chris Mancini (Daphne), Marie Miller and Patsy Parry from the APDT, Leanne Smith, Jackie Drakeford (my dear friend and mentor), Lauren Langman, Helen Phillips, Philippa Williams as well as those I have not met but read or watched, Kay Laurence, Susan Garrett, Gail Tamases Fisher, Emily Larlham, Patricia McConnell to name but a few. All these people can help you too. If you live near them fab, if not learn by book, dvd, internet, workshops. Dog training is not a trade secret, it should be shared and developed in an atmosphere of communal learning where we all want to be the best handlers for our dogs.


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