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The "Art" of Reinforcement

Learning how to truly understand the placement of rewards to reap the benefits of reinforcement. By Stacy Goudy

Art? Is proper reinforcement really an art? I believe it is. For some it comes incredibly naturally. For others it is something that requires much thought and effort, and for a small number of individuals, it is almost impossible to master.

I am one of the lucky ones. Reinforcement comes very natural to me. Whether human or animal, it is very clear to me that learning occurs much faster in a rewarding environment. It goes much deeper than that though.

The reasons for reinforcement are many - we reinforce to motivate, we reinforce to maintain motivation, we reinforce as a catalyst for learning. I am fairly certain that everyone understands these points. The problem lies in truly understanding the "placement" of reward to truly reap the benefits of reinforcement as a training tool.

Before I go any deeper into this, let's deal with the elephant in the room. The portion of the dog training population that feels  rewards are unnecessary in dog training. I know that over the years many dogs have been and are still trained without the use of tangible reinforcers.

That does not make it right. Without tangible reinforcements, it is incredibly difficult for a dog to learn to make correct choices based on a clear understanding, rather than fear of failure. I think there is a lot of learned helplessness that occurs when we expect dogs to perform without a true understanding of the behaviors we are asking of them.

Learned helplessness is not having the ability to choose the right or wrong decision because the difference between the two has never been taught. The dog is in a perpetual state of confusion. Different temperaments will deal with this condition in different ways; from total shut down, to taking control and running amuck.

So, we not only need to be willing to use tangible reinforcers, we must have them readily available to mark proper responses, and most importantly, know where and when to reinforce.

In training situations it is not unlikely to see a handler withhold all reward until the end of whatever sequence they are working on at the moment. The problems with this are many.

  1. You are missing so many fantastic opportunities to reward great things that occurred prior to the end of the sequence, i.e. a turn that was tighter than before, a perfect contact performance, etc.
  2. By ignoring the great things that happened on course and only rewarding the end you are reinforcing exactly that: the end! There are many dogs that are a bit droopy all the way around the course and perk up amazingly at the end of the run. Why do you suppose this is?
  3. You are missing opportunities to build value for the obstacles which translates into speed, drive and enthusiasm. Once you have truly built value for the obstacles, your dog will never notice that the toys and treats are not showing up at trials.

I have even heard people say that they will reward the dog when "they" (the handler) get it right! I think the whole wrongness of this statement is pretty self-explanatory and needs no further discussion.

It is also argued that you cannot use toys and treats at a trial, so the dog needs to learn to work without them. I have a huge problem with this statement. As stated above, one of the benefits of frequent properly placed reinforcements is that they create drive and build value for the whole process.

In reality, if you think about it, you are training at least 75 percent of the time and trailing maybe 25 percent. With those differentials, how sad is it to be missing all of those opportunities to create the fast, confident, amazing agility partner we are all looking for!

On a happier note, let's talk about when and where to reinforce.

Proper placement and timing of rewards will help build drive and maintain motivation simply because it breeds clarity! You should be rewarding your dog for all behaviors that you would like to continue and avoid reinforcing behaviors that you would like to extinguish.

That might seem overly simplified. However, if we could keep our training simple, it would be far easier! When you make a mistake, you should reward your dog! The behaviors that your dogs are offering are based on the information you are providing. If that information is contradictory to what your intentions were, the dog is still correct since they were reading what you were saying/showing, not what you were thinking!

When your dog has a particularly difficult time with a behavior and they finally get it, REWARD your dog! There are definitely places that reinforcement is not indicated. One of the most common mistaken places to reward is when the dog deflates and we try to use food to get them motivated.

If you are feeding the dog for slowing down, or for doing nothing you are perpetuating the problem. Reward the dog for working, just be sure that the paycheck not only reflects the level of work you are expecting, but also what the dog considers fair wage.

When you lose a dog to distractions, especially sniffing, hunting for food, etc., they are telling you that they are not getting paid enough. Listen to your dog. They have very valuable information to share with you that will make your job as trainer and handler much easier!

I realize this article barely scratches the surface where reinforcement is concerned. It is a topic that could use a class of its own!

Until then, I hope this helps at least a little to clarify some of the questions about the value and necessity of tangible reinforcement in dog training!

Stacy Peardot-Goudy has been teaching, competing, and generally living dog agility since 1989. Stacy's first Border Collies "Jack" and "Secret" are 2 of the pioneers of the sport of agility and accomplished many firsts.
Stacy's accomplishments include:

  • Representing the USA at the IFCS World Championships  as a competitor on 3 separate occasions with 2 different dogs, earning the first ever title IFCS World Champion in 2002 with her dog Secret.
  • Stacy and Secret once again represented the USA in 2004 at the IFCS World Championships going on to win the all around Silver medal.
  • In 2006 Stacy represented the USA yet again with Able who finished 5th overall with 7 clear rounds.
  • In 2008 and 2010 Stacy was named IFCS team USA coach helping her team medal in numerous events both years.
  • Competed in the ESPN Great Outdoor Games medaling with 3 different dogs at multiple events.
  • Won numerous USDAA Regional Championships including wins in all categories, Grand Prix, Steeplechase and Dog Agility Masters team tournaments.
  • National Finalist in each of the organizations that she competes in and has been a member of the National Champion Dog Agility Masters team 2 different times with 2 different dogs.
  • Showing her diversity as a trainer and handler Stacy has trained and handled 9 different dogs to their USDAA Agility Dog Champion titles, more than any other handler in the country!

Stacy presents seminars worldwide and hosts agility camps, workshops, classes, and private lessons through her agility training school C Spot Win located in LaPorte, CO where she resides with her husband Geoff and son Nicholas.


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