First Principles Thinking – Reinforcement Builds Behavior

IMG_9273Somehow or another, I can often relate interesting ideas from my general reading to dog training.  Recently, I read an article that mentioned the term “First Principles Thinking”.  It was defined with a quote by successful entrepreneur Elon Musk (Tesla, PayPal, Space X) :  “First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.”

In dog training, a fundamental truth is this: Reinforcement Builds Behavior.  In other words, behaviors that my dog finds reinforcing will be repeated.  Without getting too theoretical, this is the basic model:

Stimulus (change in environment)–> Behavior –>  Reinforcement

Scenario 1: Squirrel runs –> Dog chases squirrel –> Dog’s prey instinct is satisfied

Scenario 2: Dog bowls clatter as dinner is prepared–> Dog comes running to kitchen –>Dog’s hunger is satisfied.

None of us have to teach our dogs the behavior of coming to eat dinner or chasing squirrels!  Why?  Because those behaviors are inherently reinforcing for the dog.  Spend some time thinking of the behaviors your dog exhibits and then ask yourself why?  Why does he run to the back door and bark?  Why does he jump on people?  Why does he drink out of the toilet bowl?  It has to do with what he finds reinforcing.

Here is a starter list of things my dogs find reinforcing: access to food and water, sniffing, stalking, marking, chasing, chewing, barking, access to the outdoors, access to indoors, access to toys, access to ME, social interactions with people and other dogs, a comfy place to sleep, activities such as hiking, swimming, retrieving, tugging, possessing, fence running, snapping at flies.  I’m sure you can add others.  The important point is that dogs like these things and their behaviors are pretty much always about seeking those reinforcements.

What we are after as dog trainers is to build the behaviors we need for everyday life and dog sports.  That means we have to use reinforcements (rewards) that our dogs love and that we can control.  Remember, reinforcement builds behavior.  Knowing WHAT is reinforcing to my dog is critical if I want to harness this truth for practical application. Trying to build behavior with something that my dog does NOT find reinforcing won’t get me very far.  Just because my friend’s dog loves to chase a tennis ball, does not mean my dog will.  Just because another dog will do anything for kibble, does not mean my dog will.

So the list of reinforcers (rewards) my dog loves and that I can control gets much shorter: Food in various forms that is easy to deliver, toys that allow interaction with me (e.g. tugging), praise and social interaction (petting).

IMG_2595-cropIt’s worth the effort to build a repertoire of reinforcers that you can control and some rules around those rewards – like no grabbing at my hands for food or toys, like bringing the toy back to me, like playing with the toy I’m offering and ignoring the ones on the ground, like simply helping the dog learn that he must earn his rewards.  But first be a good observer of your dog’s response to what you are offering as a reward.  Only use what your dog wants when building behaviors.   How do you know?  One simple way is to watch your dog…after receiving the reward you offer, did the dog stay engaged?   Or did the dog immediately make the choice to leave you for other reinforcement or – even momentarily – start to look around for something better?  Or lose a little enthusiasm for his work?

The relative value of a reward can vary depending on the environment.  Your dog may love to tug at home but has difficulty focusing on the toy in agility class with lots of distractions.   A better choice would be to use high-value food in class and keep working on building value for other rewards like toys in less distracting environments.  Your dog may do flips for kibble at home, but in a highly distracting environment, a higher value food reward like tuna fudge or a tug toy may get better results.

Carefully observing your dog’s responses to the rewards you offer can help guide your training sessions.  The fundamental truth is reinforcement builds behavior, so be sure to use something your dog perceives as reinforcing and you can control. It’s part of being a practical dog trainer.

Agility – Be playful, try hard and have fun!

As part of the Dog Agility Blogger Action Day, I’m taking a stab at defining how I have FUN with dog agility.

100_4535This is a topic close to me because I just came out of a period where agility wasn’t that much “Fun”, or at least where another “F” word better described my mindset and that was “Frustrated”.  Frustrated because over the course of a 2 yr period there always seemed to be something in the way of achieving my lofty competitive goals with my 5 yr old border collie, Tai. Goals that included qualifying for big events like nationals and world team tryouts and ultimately doing well at those events. The list includes dog injuries, human injuries, tough, long Northeast winters with little to no training, canceled winter trials, unsettling conditions at summer outdoor trials (mud, heavy rain, uneven ground) that led to errors or scratching, jumping the tough height of 26″, a couple of holes in our training and a couple of “kind of odd” training challenges provided by my quirky but brilliant border collie, Tai.

So, I stepped back and asked myself why I love this sport.  Answer was because it is “fun”.  So, wait a minute…didn’t I just say I wasn’t having fun anymore?  So, I thought about WHEN I consistently have fun with my dogs.

  • I am relaxed and don’t feel rushed.
  • I’m not worried about making mistakes…if they happen, we just got a lesson!
  • I’m totally engaged with my dog – we are connected, respectful and playful.
  • I am mentally engaged with the handling or training challenges that are before me.
  • I have a specific goal and a plan, appropriate for the learning stage my dog is in at that time.

Does that sound like a TRAINING session?  Yes.  But the answer to how I am making agility fun again, is to take that same attitude to every TRIAL.  Agility is a GAME that we PLAY with our dogs.  In a training session or at a trial…be playful, try hard and have FUN!  That sums up the attitude of my canine partners and I want to emulate it.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” – this quote is attributed to several famous people…including Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.  It doesn’t matter who said it…there is a lot of truth in it.  In 2016, I’m playing my own game, with my own dog and celebrating my own victories – big or small.  I don’t have competitive goals as defined by qualifying for big events or obtaining that next DQ or MACH.  Instead my goal is to walk to the line with this attitude – be playful, try hard and have fun.  I’m not expecting improvements to happen by accident.  I have gotten input from coaches and training partners leading to a good training plan. I am strategically using trials to work through some of our training or handling challenges, being ready to take a lesson away and building to the point where I will step to the line totally confident in our skills – knowing things can go wrong but not anticipating that they might.  So far, that is working for us.  And I believe the rest will come, or it won’t.  Meanwhile, I will truly enjoy the sport with my canine partner who does not care one wit if we qualify or not, if we are at a trial or in the backyard playing the game.

I’ve been around agility competitions for many years and have participated in multiple venues.  I competed in an era when we were truly just figuring things out, long before “handling systems” came on the scene.  I have competed at many small local trials, Nationals and at the Agility World Championships.  I have observed that the “best competitors” have a few things in common and that includes truly enjoying the game they are playing with their dogs. Whether they win or lose…they respect their partner and can bounce back quickly from errors.  And I’m talking about people on the world stage and people who never leave home.  They just make me smile because of the joy they share with their dog and the recognition that in spite of a small error there was a lot of good stuff and they know their dog tried hard.  In the midst of the frustration I was feeling in the fall, I had several people I didn’t know come up to me and complement me on how nice I am to my dogs and enjoy watching me interact with them (I think they meant watching me be playful).  That made me feel great because I was struggling at the time with a string of non-qualifying runs and it was nice to know that I wasn’t being a complete douche bag about it.

That is my story…I hope it helps some of you who may be struggling…be playful, try hard and have fun!  Here is a recent video I put together to celebrate that attitude and remind myself how much fun I have doing this sport with my one of my best buddies.  One Step at a Time.

Read what others have written on this topic here: Dog Agility Bloggers Action Day – Fun.