Friday, August 13, 2010

My Snuggly Boy

Picture this. It's 2 o'clock in the morning and you're letting your dog out to do his business. You were barely coherent enough to get a leash on him! As you sleepily sit on the porch steps while he finishes up, you remember you are supposed to reinforce his going potty outside. But you didn't grab your clicker and you didn't grab your treats. What to do!?

If clicker trainers had a dime for every time someone asked, "when can I get rid of the clicker and treats?" well, we would be able to do this job for free. The science behind positive reinforcement is that you give the dog something rewarding when he's done something right to up your chances that he does that behavior again. Commonly, this is done with the clicker/treat combo. The clicker marks the thing that was right and the treat gives the dog a reason to try that behavior again.
But what are you supposed to do if the dog is still acquiring behaviors and you find yourself without clicker and treats?
 It's because of this reality I try to teach clients the importance of finding real-life reinforcers for their dogs. I say "find" because your dog knows what's reinforcing to them - you just have to discover what would be ideal for you to use. Barking is reinforcing, but that's not necessarily a behavior you want to use as reinforcement. Cuddling is reinforcing to some dogs, that would be perfect to use when you find yourself without treats!

It turns out, Kuna is a sucker for some behind-the-ear petting. He loves to shove his puppy head in your lap while you slowly rub behind his ears. I found this out while I was teaching him that biting makes me go away. He tried to bite a couple times and the third time of me getting up and leaving, he decided instead of a bite, he would put his head in my lap. I slowly, so that I didn't get him riled up again, rubbed behind his ears while talking softly to him. He practically fell asleep! So I thought, hmm...let's see if this is good enough to use as reinforcement for behaviors. "Kuna. Sit." His little butt plopped on the ground. "gooooooood booooooy...." as I massaged his ears. I asked for the behavior again, wanting to see whether the speed of his behavior increased, decreased or stayed the same now that he thinks he will get an ear rub in return. Sure enough, the "sit" was faster. So I rewarded with the ear rub. A few more reps of this told me that the ear rub was perfect reinforcement - the behavior got faster. *when you're experimenting with this and you notice their behavior response time slows, then the reinforcement is not working correctly. Try something else...

It was me in the example above: there I was, practically falling asleep on the porch when I realized: uh-oh! he just
1) didnt go pee in the house
2) told me he had to pee outside
3) successfully eliminated outside.
I need to reward this big time!! So I went over to my little love bug and rewarded him with a little snuggle and an ear rub. His tail told me this was exactly what he was looking for!

Try this out with your dog! Use toys, praise, happy voice...all of these things can be reinforcers. You can also try pairing praise with a treat so that your dog begins to associate your words of encouragement with tasty morsels of food. That will make your praise worth much more!



  1. Great reminder! When I've found myself in that position with Honey, I'd pick up a stick off the ground--instant tug toy!

    But, you're right, sometimes the reinforcer doesn't work and we have to find something else.

    That's the difference I find between the professional and the amateur dog trainer--the professional finds alternatives faster.