By Yvette Van Veen
It would be like saying that people would choose to work for a strawberry rather than sloth by the pool with a six pack of cold ones. The temptation to sip the more appealing beer holds greater value than a four calorie berry. It seems reasonable to conclude that beers would beat strawberries.
And yet, as strawberry season starts, people flock in droves to the fields. Not only will they work for strawberries, they’ll leave their pools to do it. They will pay for the privilege of toiling in the heat to pick them.
Strawberries one. Beer Zero.
Strawberries can “win” against beers. And a measly little treat can beat a squirrel.
Value is a red herring. It’s not the only thing at play during training. We humans tend to focus on the value of the food without looking further. The hunt for the magical, squirrel beating treat begins.
When dried liver doesn’t work, we move to…. Chicken? Cheese? Steak? Boiled gizzards dusted in dried anchovies? How about a little Waygu beef with a porcini crumble? I should eat as well as the dogs I see.
I’m not saying that you should be cheap. Choose the right value of food for the job. I go into that topic in a previous blog that you can read here. During skill building, extreme food value generally is compensating for a mechanical issue.
The dog’s ability to ignore distractions is tied to the SPEED of the reinforcements in their past learning. Not the value!!!
It’s why so many people think that using positive reinforcement only works for “easy breeds” like Labs. Positive reinforcement works with all breeds. Some dogs learn despite mechanical issues. Other normal dogs do not afford trainers that luxury. My Kip is a dog that falls into the latter category. He quickly points out my errors.
If you want a dog to ignore distractions, then you have to reinforce quickly. This means working the dog around various distractions, working up through harder and harder ones. And the speed at which you pay has to be blazing fast. Why?
Because we all love easy pickings!
It’s not ONE strawberry that beat the beer. It’s the MANY strawberries in our past. For most of us, picking berries started when we were young. We ran about the field grabbing many big juicy berries. We shoved them in our mouths, bright red juice dribbling down our chins. The smell of the plants, the earth, a sign of spring.
We have a history. Those easy pickings and those positive experiences are in our brains. Rejecting the pool today was created in the fields long ago.
That’s where people go wrong in their dog training. They are focused on the one treat in their hand today. Training builds future behaviour. A well trained dog is not trained with the one cookie waving in front of its nose today. The behaviour came from the many experiences of their past.
Your dog loves easy pickings – fast rate of reinforcement. Key word is love. Good training needs to be fast. Always moving the bar so the dog progresses on their skill. It needs to be rapid fire right and right and right.
At this point most people get deeply concerned about all the cookies. They hesitate. They worry that the dog is only doing it for the food. They are worried that they will be feeding fast forever. Let it go.
Because there’s this neat little effect that happens when you commit.
Easy pickings (fast reinforcement) creates joy – a positive association. It’s an effect that seems almost too good to be true until you see it happen.
Remember the opening strawberry example. People are PAYING to work. When we have a history of easy pickings – it creates joy. We can go for long periods of time without reinforcements and keep working away despite distractions. We don’t quit when we have some bad days and nothing to show for it. We try, try, again.
For all the behaviour geeks out there, fast reinforcement creates a strong S-(R-O) association. The recipe for behavioural momentum. When the dog hears the cue, their brain leaps to the expected outcome. They’re drooling before they even get to work. The same as we start to happily drool while we drive to the strawberry field for an afternoon of back breaking work.
Committing to fast rate of reinforcement with conviction, knowing that this tipping point happens is what separates those who get magic and those who feel like they are always bribing their dog back.
If you’re at the wrong level, if you hesitate, if you’re paying too slowly, you’re hard labour. It’s hard pickings. Tedious. Boring. Frustrating. It doesn’t matter if you used cookies. How they were used was taxing on the animal. By comparison, a squirrel becomes the better pick. You become like the parent who nags their young kinds into “find more berries…pick more…get to work!” It doesn’t matter if you paid an allowance. The job sucked. It’s a bad history. It comes back to haunt you when distractions appear. You wind up with a dog that would rather do anything else because despite the cookies, they didn’t learn to like it.
The difference between treats that beat squirrels and those that do not is the speed of reinforcement.
Todays reinforcements are tomorrow’s history of reinforcement. You’re building future behaviour today. Fast reinforcement creates joy in the task. It’s the difference between the dog that loves to work and the dog that is doing so because nothing better happens to be happening.
There’s magic in speed of reinforcement.
About the Author
Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada. She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star. She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada. She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.