Train It, then Name It

When teaching any pet a new behaviour we need to do two things – we need to explain to our pets what we want them to do, and we need to give that behaviour a name (or cue). If we do these two things correctly we end up with a pet who will offer that particular behaviour only when prompted by the cue, and most importantly they will offer it when given the cue.

Most of us, myself included, were taught to go about achieving these two things backwards. We repeat the cue that we would like to use, while trying to make our pets do the correct behaviour. “Sit, Fido!” as we lure our dog’s nose up or push on their bottom, “Step Up, Polly!” as we bring out the sunflower seed or push our finger into our budgie’s belly. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. But is it an efficient, clear, and fun way to teach our pet something new?

Let’s take a look!

The biggest problem with teaching this way is that we are setting our pet up to fail. If they don’t yet understand that “Sit” means put your butt on the ground, or “Step Up” means step onto my finger, then they are quite likely to respond to our chanting the cue incorrectly. They might stare at us blankly, walk away in confusion, or try the wrong behaviour. We get frustrated that they’re not getting it, and they get frustrated that they’re not earning their reward!

So how else could we go about training?

shake hands parrot
Elmo has learnt that “Shakes Hands” means hold this finger.

Say we want to teach our dog to “Sit”. First things first, zip your lips! Your pet does not speak English, and verbal direction at this stage is unhelpful. In this example we will start training using a food reward. We take the treat, move it in front of Fido’s nose, and then slowly raise it above his head. As Fido’s nose follows the treat his head goes up and his butt goes down. Bingo! He’s sitting. Job well done! Now we can work on fading that lure into a hand signal, then we can explain that “Hey, you know when your butt hits the ground? That’s called SIT!”

It is very, very easy to train your pet to offer a certain behaviour, such as in the above example, without ever opening your mouth. This means that when we do add in the name for a behaviour, we can use our body language to ensure our pet responds correctly – we know they will, because we’ve already trained it! Imagine how much less frustrating that is for everyone!

But won’t our pets associate our cue with the behaviour faster if we keep repeating it? No, they won’t. By putting our pet in a situation where they may not respond correctly we are muddying our cue. When i ask my pet to do something, i am asking them to respond correctly first try. If they don’t, i zip my lips and find where the holes are in my training. Maybe i need to go back a few steps. Hearing a cue repeated again and again before actually understanding what they need to do only creates confusion. Does “Sit” mean look up, look left, yawn, scratch, sniff, squat, or what?!

It’s about training smart, and setting our pets up for success without confusion.

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Just doing it for the food

Some people really get their knickers in a twist about using food when training animals, as though it is somehow cheating or insulting that their pet will work for food. We want to show people how to use food to motivate their pets in training, without bribing their pets or feeling like their pet is only in it for the food.

I like to think of a treat in training like my paycheck. If i didn’t get my paycheck each week i feel fairly certain the standard of my work would decline. Does that mean i’m only working for the money? Nope! I love working with great people, meeting awesome animals, and doing what I love. I also volunteer some of my time to helping local animal organisations, which i enjoy for the experience and warm fuzzies. I’m not working just for the money, but money is motivating for people. Food is motivating for animals!

When we teach our pets something new, we often start off with a treat visible. Our pet can see what’s on offer, and by the position of the treat we can help our pet do the right thing. When the treat is visible like that, we call it a lure (or a bribe). Lures can be really useful early on in training, but if you don’t fade them quickly you will end up with a pet who only responds when he can see what’s on offer.

dog training

That’s why I show people how to keep their treats hidden, and how to use either a clicker or a word to tell their pets they have done the right thing. The pet doesn’t know what treats are on offer, but through training experience we can teach them that listening to us pays off. As your pet gets the hang of a new behaviour, you can start to vary the rate at which you offer the treats. You become a random treat dispenser, and your pet will keep responding in the hope that this time it pays off!

By using treats to motivate your pet during training, you are proving that you are the source of great things, and that, by responding to you, your pet can gain access to things that he likes. Just like i enjoy the people, animals, and work that i do, your pet will enjoy the game of training and the time spent with you. By making training motivating and fun, your pet will genuinely look for ways to engage in training games with you. Training through positive reinforcement strengthens the human-animal bond.

Training Talk: Reinforcement

Welcome to the Training Talk series! We have decided to put together a series of blog posts to introduce readers to the basics of learning theory. Understanding the simple rules that cause animals to behave in different ways will help you to be able to work with your pet more effectively. Any trainer or owner, whether they are increasing good behaviour, decreasing bad behaviour, or working on an animals emotional response to something, is working with the principles of learning theory (whether they know it or not). We want you to understand how the different methods of training work, so that you can make informed decisions about how you train your pet.

In the first instalment of the Training Talk series we are going to look at reinforcement. What is it, how can we use it, and why does it work?

In the world of animal training and behaviour modification, reinforcement is simply something that increases the likelihood of the target behaviour occurring again. Notice how there is no mention of treats or praise? Reinforcement doesn’t exclusively apply to something good, it just means we are doing something that will make our pets repeat a behaviour.

Modern pet trainers generally focus on using what we call positive reinforcement. This means that the “something” that increases the chance of our pet repeating the behaviour is good. Our pet is repeating the behaviour to earn something, like a treat, and because they enjoy it they will do it more often.

positive reinforcement cat

Positive reinforcement is easy for us to use when training our pet. All that matters is that our pet wants what we have on offer (whether it is a treat, a toy, or praise) and we will keep seeing that behaviour. Even better for us, because our pet wants what we’ve got, they will look at training time as a fun game. Their behaviour can lead to fun consequences.

Traditional pet training (especially for dogs) focuses on a different kind of reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is still increasing the chance of our pet repeating the behaviour, but rather than earning something good they are avoiding something unpleasant. A mild example would be teaching a dog to sit by pushing its bottom down. By sitting, the dog will stop the pressure. They will learn that in future, if they sit promptly, they can avoid the pressure altogether.

You can see that while the end result is still that the behaviour increases, the experience is very different for our pets. Rather than seeing us as goody dispensers, and learning that they can earn the good stuff by behaving in certain ways, our pets learn that we can sometimes create stress for them, which they can avoid by behaving the way we want. This is less fun for both our pets and ourselves, and long term can create strong avoidance behaviours in our pets.

A feature that is crucial to understand about reinforcement in general is that it is unique to each animal or person. If you are trying to teach your pet to do something using praise or pats as your reinforcer but your pet is not repeatiang the behaviour, then praise or pats are not reinforcing to your pet in this context. Try using treats or a game with their favourite toy instead. Remember, by definition, reinforcement increases behaviour.

At Treat. Play. Love. we focus on teaching owners how to use positive reinforcement when training their pets. People bring pets into their lives for companionship and fun, we want to make training an enjoyable experience for everyone!

What is positive reinforcement?

There are some misconceptions out there about what positive reinforcement is – some people see it as bribery, others think treats are limited just to tricks, and some think that praise or petting alone mean they’re training with positive reinforcement.

By definition, positive reinforcement is something that is added to your pets environment to increase a particular behaviour. It is a consequence that motivates your pet to do that again. Often the thing that we add is food, because all living things eat and so can be motivated by food, but we can also add a beloved toy, a game of tug, a belly rub or head scratch, or anything else your pet likes. That’s the key, it has to be something your pet likes.

dog chew reinforcementYou can tell whether or not what you’re doing is positively reinforcing to your pet, because if it is they will do that behaviour more often! If you give your dog a pat on the head whenever he sits, and he starts avoiding you when you cue a sit, then being petted is not reinforcing to your dog because the behaviour is decreasing. On the other hand you might offer your dog a treat each time he sits, causing him to sit more often. Now you have positively reinforced sitting!

People mistakenly think that positive reinforcement is the same as bribery, but it is very different. When you’ve been bribed, you can see your reward and are working with the knowledge you are about to get it. In training this would be luring, when you hold a treat or toy in front of your pet to get them to do something. The reward in positive reinforcement is unknown to your pet, but it knows through past training that usually you come up with something good!

The really cool thing is that through training, more and more things can become positively reinforcing to your pet because of great associations they’ve made with them in the past. Sometimes even the opportunity to respond to a certain cue can be motivating to your pet. It is this versatility that makes positive reinforcement so great – you might be empty handed, but that doesn’t have to mean you can’t reward a job well done!

Is your pet motivated?

Begging Dog

There are a range of factors that influence whether or not your pet will perform a behaviour when you ask, but a big one that is often overlooked is motivation. You’ve asked your pet to do something, now they’re wondering “what’s in it for me?”

Many people hold the belief that our pets, particularly our dogs, should do what we say “to please us”. There are a number of things wrong with this expectation, but in particular is the fact that animals don’t live by what’s right or wrong in the world but rather by what brings them good things and what causes bad things to happen. They repeat behaviours that bring them good outcomes, and avoid behaviours that lead to bad things happening.

Which brings us back to motivation. You’ve asked your dog to come, but he’s having a blast barking at dog on the other side of the fence. You’re empty handed, and you sound mad. What’s in it for him? Not much! He could stay at the fence having a blast, or he could come to you and get in trouble. He has no concept that it will please you if he comes on cue, he is just interested in how it affects his day.

There are a range of ways you can motivate your pet to work with you instead of ignoring you. Try using favourite treats, games, toys, attention, and praise during training. If you can teach him that listening to you leads to all his favourite things happening, then the stakes are in your favour next time you cue a behaviour. The more good history you build, the better the stakes get for you.

Next time your pet seems to blow you off when you ask him to do something, take a minute to think about what you’re offering him in return. Are you asking him to stop doing something he’s enjoying? Then you had better up your game!