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Training Tuesday - Fabulous Focus, Part 2

In the second part of our series on focus, trainer Lisa Lyle Waggoner discusses dog body language and the importance of reinforcers.

by Lisa Lyle Waggoner, CPDT-KA

Understand the nuances of dog body language. Take the time to learn and understand the frequent body language signals dogs display. Its important to learn the nuances of that language, especially as it relates to stress signals, so that you can accurately read the dogs body language and then draw a conclusion as to what your dog is feeling. Stress develops from an inability to cope with the current situation. By understanding and observing these signals, youll know when to intervene or how to change the environment to set your dog up to lessen that stress. All living beings need to feel comfortable and confident to be able to learn.

Understand how dogs learn so you can make more informed training decisions. Dogs learn by association and by consequence. Learning by association means that dogs are always making decisions about whats safe and whats not in their world. Making training fun helps your dog develop a positive emotional response to the exercise. Dogs are also constantly making decisions based on consequence. Is this good for me or is this bad for me? Reinforcing your dog when she focuses on you will increase the likelihood that she will give you her attention again. The consequence of looking at you equals something awesome (a high-value reinforcer such as a yummy treat or a game of tug, or something else you know your dog loves). Reinforcement is key. Behaviors that are reinforced will be repeated.

Understand the value and timing of reinforcers. Reinforcement for the behavior of looking at you should be immediate and must be something the dog loves. The reinforcer should be of high value to your dog, and your dog gets to decide. Ive met dogs who would spit out a hot dog in a nanosecond and preferred romaine lettuce (I kid you not!). Food is a primary reinforcer, so food is a good choice, though for some dogs a game of tug or the opportunity to chase a toy is very reinforcing. Timing of the reinforcement is also very important: It must be immediate. If you ask for your dogs attention from the back porch and she immediately looks at you, then you go back inside the house and open the refrigerator to pull out a piece of cheese and pop it in her mouth as she sits in the kitchen, youre reinforcing her for sitting in the kitchen, not for immediately looking at you when you cued her.

Understand schedules of reinforcement: No need to delve into each and every schedule of reinforcement. If you focus on continuous reinforcement and random reinforcement, it will help you train effectively. With continuous reinforcement, your dog gets reinforced every time the behavior occurs. Continuous reinforcement is a must when first teaching a new behavior. Once your dog is reliably performing the desired behavior, you can move to random reinforcement, which means every once in while you skip a click and a treat (though you continue to verbally praise the dog). Dogs are great at picking up on patterns and we humans are great at creating them, so dont decide that youll skip every third click/treat  keep it random. If you get too random too soon, you may begin to see your dog struggle with the behavior. No problem.  Just move back to reinforcing the dog more consistently and slowly work back to a more random schedule. Continuous reinforcement and random reinforcement both create equally reliable behaviors, though random reinforcement makes a behavior more durable  more resistant to extinction.  

Appropriate pairing of reinforcers and distractions. Think of reinforcement as your dogs paycheck. I like to pay well for succeeding with challenging work. Because each dog values a specific reinforcer differently, experiment to find out which foods or other reinforcers your dog really likes. Be creative! Build a written reinforcement hierarchy. Identify 10 to 20 reinforcers (food, toys and other things your dog loves) and rank those as low, medium or high value. Then identify 10 to 20 distractions (another dog, a squirrel, a leaf blowing in the wind) and rank those as low, medium or high value. This helps you understand how your dog views their world and whats important to her. Your next step is to look at each list and pair the distractions and reinforcers wisely. Use high-value reinforcers for high-value distractions. If paired inappropriately, your dogs focus and your training will suffer, but if paired wisely, everyone succeeds. For example, I use steak, which Willow will do backflips over, when training in a new, outdoor environment where there may be squirrels running about. Choose wisely! 

Read part one in the series

Read part three of the series

Read part four of the series

A passionate advocate for humane, science-based dog training, Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, and a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Instructor. She is the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, with additional locations in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Space Coast of Florida. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. 


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