Glance at the photo to the left. This dog is learning. He is learning through association that grabbing the Pizza box is a great way to get Pizza. Because it’s been successful, it’s behavior he’s likely to repeat.
Not only that, I’m willing to bet this dog will not need five hundred trials, nor fifty trials, nor even five trials to learn how to grab food from the counter. This dog has learned a new behavior in a single trial.
So, can we help our dogs learn behaviors we want in a single trial?
Robust behavior is built through robust response. Our response must make the dog prefer listening to us to anything else in his world at that moment. This is especially true for teaching a dog to come.
Design your reinforcement to fit your dog and your situation. Engage your dog in a way that he understands and enjoys. Be generous, be fun, make your dog happy that he made the choice to listen to you.
Make the reinforcement last! Give lots of cookies, one at a time, one right after another. Smile. Tell your dog how wonderful he is and mean it. Give some more cookies. Play tug or dance around with your dog. Smile and laugh. In other words, be the pizza.
You want your dog to be as happy as Snuffles when he gets his reward (click to watch)
The Art of Balance
Some behavior just doesn’t need a pizza party—I don’t get crazy happy for every sit my titled obedience dog offers. However, I did throw a huge celebration when he chose coming back to me instead of chasing a grouse that took off in front of him. Balancing our response to our partner’s behavior is a rational part of memorable reinforcement.
Loud exuberance may not be your dog’s idea of memorable reinforcement. I often encounter students who say, “I reward him, but he still doesn’t (fill in your problem behavior here.)” If reinforcement isn’t working for you, get someone to video your “Pizza Party” celebration. Then watch it with a trainer’s eye to see if your dog is enjoying the party.
Sometimes you’ll discover that there are certain gestures you make that are overwhelming your dog. I’m thinking specifically of how we touch our dogs. I recall one student who loved to pat her dog on the head. The dog winced every time she did this, but the student didn’t see it; instead she was frustrated that “reinforcement didn’t work with this dog like it did with [her] last dog.”
Make your response to your dog’s wanted behaviors pleasurable for your dog. Be the Pizza–and be sure when your dog prefers Pepperoni that you don’t deliver Hawaiian-style w/ pineapple and ham. You’ll be delighted at how quickly memorable reinforcement builds robust behavior.