Reinforcement: It’s Where the Nose Goes

 “Finish!” That is the word which always preceded the final part of many exercises I and my dog were asked to perform during competitive obedience.  It meant that my dog was to walk around behind me and sit smartly at my left side.  However, that’s not all.  He had to be precise and place his sit in such a way that his right shoulder was in line with my left leg.  Although I would start sweating a little each time he started the journey around, I cannot remember a time when his cute, fuzzy butt landed in an ill placed sit.  Why?  Because anytime we worked on finishes in training, I was careful to only feed my dog treats at my left side.  Right by my leg, where his head needed to be.  I was “feeding a habit” you could say.

This highlights what I think is an important concept in dog training:  dogs migrate towards reinforcement! Ok, it’s an important concept for us humans too, I think.  I will admit, I find myself in the vicinity of the local Starbucks far more than I probably would if vanilla lattes weren’t calling my name.  If you’ve ever noticed the group of people standing around the food table at the family BBQ, you know what I mean!  But back to dogs.  The concept that dogs will place themselves where they are rewarded can give a trainer some great control over not only what the dog does but how precisely he performs.  I often tell my clients to reward dogs on the ground after they ask for a down.  This reinforces the low position to the dog (and can prevent a quick pop up into sit if someone rewards the dog up high after its performance).  I also use position to get a precise recall (come when called).  I will only reward the dog closely in front of me.  Ok, sometimes I darn near stick the treat in my crotch.  Someone in the room is a little anal (no pointing please).  This gets the dog to come in nice and straight, which not only looks pretty but keeps him from getting in the habit of coming towards the owner and then bypassing him.  One of the pretty Great Dane girls I introduced in my earlier post (Canine Benevolence) loves to sniff.  She likes to glue her nose to the ground so much that I and her owner often joke that she’s really a Bloodhound.  Well, as you can imagine, this can make heeling a bit of a challenge, as it ends up looking more like a search and rescue mission than an organized walk.  In order to help gain more of a focus from the dog, I have started feeding her up high anytime I reward her for walking.  So high, in fact, that she has to jump just a bit to get to the treat.  This has encouraged her to keep her head up and, as a result, to pay more attention to me and my handling.

You can also reinforce movement in a similar way.  I was lucky to have participated in flyball with my Labrador Retriever, Melody.  In this sport, the dog jumps over a series of hurdles.  A ball is then launched from a box and the dog is to catch that ball and come back over the hurdles as quickly as possible with ball in mouth. It’s a timed event, so speed is extremely important. In order to drive the dog, a favorite toy is often thrown in the direction the dog is travelling when he is almost done coming back over the hurdles.  This drives the dog to move faster to get to the reinforcement.  I also use this concept in agility to encourage my dog to move quickly over the last obstacle (“Storm, jump!” as I throw the treat past the jump in the direction I want Storm to go).

So the next time you are working with your dog, or other pet for that matter, not only think about rewarding him with a treat, but think about where you are putting that treat.  Up high, or down low, you control where your dog will go!

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