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.

Back again!

Hello again!  I started this blog when Tai – who is now 6 yrs old! – was a puppy and kept it up for several years and then for no particular reason, I stopped posting. But now, thanks to the help of my son, David, my website has been renewed and reorganized. Training materials are archived in the page titled “Training Resources”. Events are listed on the – you guessed it – the “Events page”. And, I have at least 4 draft blog posts floating around on my computer or in my head. So, stay tuned.

IMG_9718A wise person told me once that getting a puppy renews our training and so, with that in mind…here is a picture of my nearly 8 month old puppy Nick, who is doing just that.  Nick is a little gift that fell into my lap last September.  He is just what I didn’t know I was looking for 🙂 and we have already had lots of fun together.

 

Teamwork and reflecting on little moments

Tai look # 1.bmpA wrinkle was added to my summer when Tai was injured in late spring.  So, this whole summer season – so cherished after our loooong winter and long spring has been spent on a different road from what I expected.  Life has a way of doing that. 

Tai is young and strong and every indication is that he’ll recover fully from an iliopsoas strain.  How to prevent future injury is another blog post altogether.  How brave he has been through this whole process could be another.

For this here and now, I am reflecting on little moments with our dogs and a little/big/huge concept of teamwork.  Do you ever step back and think about how AMAZING it is that they even want to do this crazy agility sport with us?  We layer all this human stuff on  top of the game we play with our dogs.  Like getting that “Q”, “QQ”, title, placement, championship, qualification, etc.  Believe me, I’m not immune from that way of thinking. But it does get in the way at times…of appreciating those little moments when the connection with our teammate is simple and pure.  Those feel good moments. Ultimately, having more of those moments with my teammate is what motivates me.

Speaking of teams…here is a common question that I get when trialing and it makes me laugh a bit.  How did Tai/Breeze do today?  I usually respond with something like “Well, Tai/Breeze was perfect.  I messed it up”.  Because, of course, we know that the human half of the team makes most of the mistakes.  Maybe score sheets should be required to include the handler name because we are the responsible party!

But, here is my big point about little moments.   When I say “I messed it up”.  Probably, I only messed up one thing…maybe I became spatially disoriented for a split second, maybe I misjudged where I could be relative to my teammate and my timing was slightly off.  The rest of the run may have been simple and pure and beautifully reflected all the training together and the hard work that went into preparing for those training sessions. Reflecting on those moments builds confidence; thinking about and holding onto those moments might even make them happen more often.

It’s easy to get hung up  and entangled in an artificial framework of success.  Our sport is a bit brutal that way since in most classes no mistakes (bars, contacts, refusals, etc) are allowed for qualification.  Especially AKC style agility.  Ok, that might be a different blog post.  But think about it…a team might have a fast, lovely run with all those simple and pure moments and the dog runs by the last jump.  Refusal called.  Oh well, no Q today but a lovely NQ is worth celebrating too!

This is the attitude I’m going to foster as I begin trialing with Tai again.  I’m going public, so I give you readers permission to hold me to it!

Hey, here is another question.  So, if this is a team, why does my teammate get to take a nap while I schlep all the equipment around the yard?

 

 

 

My New Pink Jump

So, I’m writing a blog about a newly purchased pink jump? Yes, I am. Because it’s pretty? No. Because it’s new? No. Because I needed another wingless jump? Definitely no. I’m writing about my new pink jump because it represents an approach that Jason Selk, author of “10-Minute Toughness” calls a “relentless solution focus”.  

Here is the history. Tai has a great education in jumping and is a lovely jumper. Ok, so sometimes he knocks a bar. Nearly always that is due to late information from his handler (that would be me). On the other hand, if he knows where he is going, he makes good decisions about what to do on the ground prior to takeoff. By that I mean he puts in an appropriate number and length of stride to both execute the current jump and prepare for what is coming next while moving very fast!

That is where the pink jump comes in…based on my record keeping and videos, I noticed a trend. Sometimes but not always Tai was knocking a pink wingless jump like that shown in the picture. Coming out of a tunnel or collapsed chute, just after a panel jump; after a release from the table, times where he had to quickly pick up the new line. But it was a different kind of knocked bar…not the late handler, slightly mis-timed information information kind that causes a rear leg to drop.  Rather the video reveals an early or late takeoff on approach to the pink wingless; or unnecessary stride before the pink wingless jump that affected the striding on the following jump.

Why would that be? I’m speculating here but I think it has to do with dog vision.  For a dog, the pink jump is harder to see than a white wingless. Colors in the red and green spectrum look brownish yellow to a dog. Magenta look gray.  So, whether the pink jump is set on a dirt floor as seen in the photo or on grass or turf, it may not stand out as much as a white jump.   Under poor lighting conditions, it’s probably worse.  The legs and the bar are white and should stand out, but what part of the jump has Tai learned to use — the bar or the uprights? Don’t know.

All of Tai’s jumping education has been using white jumps. Not really deliberate, but simply because most of my jumps are homemade and I bought the PVC at Home Depot. So, his experience with this type of colored jump is limited to trials.

Getting back to “solution focus”. At a recent trial, where Tai struggled a bit with these pink jumps a couple of times — not necessarily knocking a bar – but looking less comfortable than usual, I asked myself….What is one thing I could do to make this better? Natural answer…Purchase a pink jump and give him more experience with it! It’s too soon to know whether that will totally fix the problem, but it can’t hurt!

The more general theme here is the value of record keeping, identifying weaknesses and developing solutions.  What is one thing I can do to make this better?  What is another thing I can do?  And so on.  No time for whining…just get on it! 

Happy record keeping!

 

You can view a short article on dog vision here:

  • http://www4.uwsp.edu/psych/dog/la/davis2.htm
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