Reinforcement Rules

Most people who will bother to read this already know about the "magic" of reinforcement in dog training. It's a big deal, a hot topic, a buzzword. For good reason, it should be.

I try to instill in my clients, whether they are visiting me for basic manners, behavioral challenges, or sport work, that nothing trumps high value, well-timed reinforcement. Nothing.

Pretty sure he finds that Chuckit ball rewarding...

Pretty sure he finds that Chuckit ball rewarding...

But, of course, there are rules. Many, honestly, but here are some of the more imperative rules that will immediately impact your training.

  • behavior that is being repeated is being reinforced. Either you or the environment are rewarding the dog for the behavior, or on occasion, the behavior itself can be self-reinforcing
  • you should reward your dog MORE OFTEN. Period. More frequently, more times per correct behavior. People are always amazed how quickly I can get a dog to engage with me, or do X behavior. I am not sure I am all that "talented" frankly, its more that I know how to be generous at the right time.
  • that said, reinforcement is NOT just throwing food mindlessly, or offering treats incessantly, or letting the dog grab the toy and take off while you chase them around the yard. All of that DEVALUES the reinforcement process. I have met many a R+ trainer who is madly clicking and throwing food, to a completely unengaged, uninterested dog. When asked what they just clicked and rewarded, usually the answer is not concise, and the dog's behavior is evidence of that. Know exactly WHAT you are marking and rewarding and focus on a SPECIFIC behavior, or set of behaviors. Make the rewards retain their value by making it clear to the dog what the Cue-Behavior-Reward sequence is.
  • the dog defines what is reinforcing. Not you. I see this ALL the time, in both pet AND sport teams. Dog doesn't want to tug with you or chase a ball? Stop beating your (and their) head against the wall and get out the cookies. Dog not performing enthusiastically for those Zukes or Dry Crunchy Things(TM) you bought at Petco? For the love, stop being stingy and get out some freaking hotdogs or chicken. Figure out what your dog REALLY wants. Really, its worth it.
  • you need to build up reward SYSTEMS. For most pet owners, just teaching the dog that "mark/click-cookie is coming" is good. For those that want to train more advanced concepts like tricks or sport work, there need to be a LOT more tools in your reward tool box than "food always comes from the hand or out of a bowl". Building up those reward systems in the dog's foundation will go a LONG way in speeding along actual skills-learning down the road. The more methods you have in "treating" your dog--food, toys, personal play, other--the more motivated and willing a work partner you will have, and you will be able to train a VAST variety of behaviors. One dimensional reward systems are limiting to what teams can learn.
  • reward in position! WHERE you deliver the food makes all the difference in the world. When training stays, we should get the food quickly into the dogs mouth or between their front paws so they do not have any reason to move. Conversely, use your food to get the dog up and released! Hannah Brannigan talks about "behavior loops," and those "release cookies" are just as important to get right as the "in position" cookies as a means of resetting the dog and getting them to start the loop again on their own. Its a fascinating concept, I encourage you to check out her podcast if you want to geek out further about any of these ideas.  

Dogs that receive generous amounts of concise reinforcement are eager and willing learners, and build great relationships with their people. By bucking the notion that "he's only doing it because I have food" and learning how reinforcement actually WORKS, you can create amazing behavior change, and teach complex skills, QUICKLY. It's so freaking cool!

Happy to answer any questions or discuss anything on this front you might have.


Starting Over, a Re-introduction

Here we are, three-and-a-half years into the "project" known as Dogs Abound. I have had some stops and starts with blogging along the way, but honestly I've been horrible about committing to it. I *should* be blogging, for a variety of reasons, increased web traffic and all that jazz, building our brand, etc., etc,. And also because my web guru Reg says so (are you reading this Reg???).

I figured it was time to hold myself accountable, and put down the constantly swirling dust devils of ideas I have about training dogs down on the 'ol interwebs for posterity. Now that I have been doing this "dog thing" for a while, and am often teaching others, there is a lot I do know. And a lot more I still don't know, or at least am constantly turning over and over in my mind about what is "best" or "right," or at least, what is the most fair and effective way to get from point A to point B.

So, the re-intro.


My name is Elizabeth Randall, or Liz. I have been professionally training dogs for seven years as of this writing. I focus on positive-reinforcement-based training solutions, though I shy away from labels such as "clicker trainer" (though I love clickers and markers and use them daily), or "force free" (that's a whole 'nother can of worms that maybe I'll get into further down the line), or any of the other terms that people tend to use to compartmentalize what others do. I personally am obsessed with observing what smart reinforcement systems can do with dogs. The results are frankly astonishing once these methods are applied in a consistent and adept manner.

I teach pet dog skills, work with owners on behavioral solutions, and teach agility. Anyone who knows me knows agility is my life and my love, and its influence is seen frequently in my pet dog training. In order to competently "play" in the sport of agility, one's understanding of how to create, manipulate, motivate and maintain behavior has to be quite vast. So many moving parts all corresponding at high speeds...!!! Its a science and an art that one will never quite master, no matter how long we play at it. Which to me, is part of the allure. I'm a little masochistic that way apparently.

Currently I have three dogs. Forest, a 10 year old(??) Italian Greyhound - Miniature Pinscher mix (and the reason for all this training insanity!), Phineas, a seven year old pittie mix, and Beatrix, a three year old Border Collie. All three have competed and titled in a variety of dog things, but Forest is basically retired. The other two are currently actively competing in agility at the highest levels, and, Phin also has recently embarked on a competitive career in Nose Work. I am VERY excited where we will go together down that avenue as well. These three dogs have brought so much to my life, I am so very fortunate for each of them. They constantly push me to be a better trainer and a better person, and I am so lucky to have them here navigating through daily life with me.

I will be *trying* to keep up with this blog, ideally on a weekly basis, to discuss different training topics--sometimes it may be agility-related, often it will be generally just training-related, and I am sure some daily life and business stuff will just creep in, but the goal is to help people look at training from a new perspective, and to hopefully help people tackle and work through challenges they are facing with their own dogs.

Here's to getting a jump on the new year.