To stack the outcomes of a decision in our favor, we can use a army of different reinforcers. They are divided in primary reinforcers (things that are reinforcing in themselves, the dogs do not have to be taught to like them – the most important primary reinforcer is food for us), secondary reinforcers (things that a dog has been taught to like – eg playing with a tug toy, for humans a very powerful secondary reinforcer is money) and tertiary reinforcers (they promise another reinforcer – eg the click of the clicker).
The reinforcers I use mostly are
In my opinion, it is VERY important that the dog experiences a climate of utter abundance in training and life. I do not ever want them to think that the amount of play, food, attention, walks they get from me is limited. I do not want them to be in ANY doubt that there is always more food and more fun times waiting for them. I play a lot of mini games with them throughout the day, they can just last 30secs but they are constant reminders of just how awesome I am to them 😉
(Do you struggle with your dog being afraid you want to take his possessions away? Check out Preventing Resource Guarding to find out how to make him understand you won’t steal a thing from him!)
This also means that they get a lot of reinforcers for free (well, for the sole act of interacting with me). I carry their food around with me a lot, they might get it for checking in on a walk, for looking at me when they see food on the table, for coming to give me a kiss…same applies for games as well, I don’t carry toys around but they understand “go get a toy!” or we just play with my hands or chasing me.
So let start with looking in detail at behaviors and the outcome of the dog’s choices.
It is crucially important that the dog understands cues for this. A nice way to see how well they actually understand (verbal) cues is to give them in unusual positions (sitting down, turned away from the dog, standing on a chair…it is quite surprising how quickly their skills deteriorate once you change your body language a bit!).
Anyway, under the assumption that the dog understands a cue 100% in a quiet and non-distracting setting, we can look at why he might not respond in a distracting setting.
Let’s say, your dog sits perfectly in your living room, every time you ask her. The outcomes for her when asked to sit are:
That is an easy to make choice, and the reason why most dogs perform behaviors perfectly at home in a quiet setting – the choice is as easy as picking up your mail!
Let’s say you are at the park, with possibly other dogs she likes, other people, many smells etc.
That changes everything. The outcomes are now:
She might make a choice that is not in your favor. In order to change that, we need to make our rewards more powerful and the environment less promising.
I actually like to think of “distractions” as “rewards of the environment”, because it illustrates nicely how you compete with them. It is very important to realize that the environment NEVER fails to reward your dog. If I ask my dog to sit, and she sits, and I decide to not pay for the sit (not even with social interaction), then this is a bit of a broken promise. The environment never does that. How often has your dog seen a dog, ran towards it and then the dog disappeared into thin air?! Or a bush, or a person…the environment is a very consistent reward-er.
Does that mean that we have to pay every sit with a cookie for the rest of our lives? no. But it does mean that we need to pay great attention to whether the environment overtakes us in its outcome upsides.