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Training Article: Fabulous Focus, Part 2

In the second part of our series on focus, trainer Lisa Lyle Waggoner discusses dog body language and the importance of reinforcers.


by Lisa Lyle Waggoner, CPDT-KA

Understand the nuances of dog body language. Take the time to learn and understand the frequent body language signals dogs display. It's important to learn the nuances of that language, especially as it relates to stress signals, so that you can accurately read the dog's body language and then draw a conclusion as to what your dog is feeling. Stress develops from an inability to cope with the current situation. By understanding and observing these signals, you'll know when to intervene or how to change the environment to set your dog up to lessen that stress. All living beings need to feel comfortable and confident to be able to learn.

Understand how dogs learn so you can make more informed training decisions. Dogs learn by association and by consequence. Learning by association means that dogs are always making decisions about what's safe and what's not in their world. Making training fun helps your dog develop a positive emotional response to the exercise.

Dogs are also constantly making decisions based on consequence. Is this good for me or is this bad for me? Reinforcing your dog when she focuses on you will increase the likelihood that she will give you her attention again. The consequence of looking at you equals something awesome (a high-value reinforcer such as a yummy treat or a game of tug, or something else you know your dog loves). Reinforcement is key. Behaviors that are reinforced will be repeated.

Understand the value and timing of reinforcers. Reinforcement for the behavior of looking at you should be immediate and must be something the dog loves. The reinforcer should be of high value to your dog, and your dog gets to decide. I've met dogs who would spit out a hot dog in a nanosecond and preferred Romaine lettuce (I kid you not!). Food is a primary reinforcer, so food is a good choice, though for some dogs, a game of tug or the opportunity to chase a toy is very reinforcing. 

Timing of the reinforcement is also very important: It must be immediate. If you ask for your dog's attention from the back porch and she immediately looks at you, then you go back inside the house and open the refrigerator to pull out a piece of cheese and pop it in her mouth as she sits in the kitchen, you're reinforcing her for sitting in the kitchen, not for immediately looking at you when you cued her.

Understand schedules of reinforcement: No need to delve into each and every schedule of reinforcement. If you focus on continuous reinforcement and random reinforcement, it will help you train effectively. With continuous reinforcement, your dog gets reinforced every time the behavior occurs. Continuous reinforcement is a must when first teaching a new behavior. Once your dog is reliably performing the desired behavior, you can move to random reinforcement, which means every once in while you skip a click and a treat (though you continue to verbally praise the dog). 

Dogs are great at picking up on patterns and we humans are great at creating them, so don't decide that you'll skip every third click/treat -- keep it random. If you get too random too soon, you may begin to see your dog struggle with the behavior. No problem. Just move back to reinforcing the dog more consistently and slowly work back to a more random schedule. 

Continuous reinforcement and random reinforcement both create equally reliable behaviors, though random reinforcement makes a behavior more durable, and more resistant to extinction.  

Appropriate pairing of reinforcers and distractions. Think of reinforcement as your dog's paycheck. I like to pay well for succeeding with challenging work. Because each dog values a specific reinforcer differently, experiment to find out which foods or other reinforcers your dog really likes. Be creative! Build a writ

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