Whilst teaching one of my regular groups yesterday, the conversation came up of the need to reward their dogs at the end of the session, irrespective of what they had been working on or the relevance of that last reward.
The notion of having to leave your training on a ‘good note’, is something that is often advised and still endorsed.
Where does that expression come from? I remember reading an article written by a world renowned agility competitor who discussed this exact point.
Her comments were really so insightful.
She discussed in this article, that one of the reasons she believed the concept came to fruition, was when training utilised more compulsive methods, and leaving your session on a ‘good note’, was in the hope that your dog wouldn’t necessarily remember the negative aspects of the session so when you next trained them, they would come out with a upbeat attitude to the training. I can definitely see how she drew that conclusion.
However as a trainer/coach and teacher, who uses reinforcement based methodology, I still see this concept coming up. Yet the people that I teach couldn’t be further away from compulsive training, if they tried.
So why do people who subscribe to a reinforcement based system, feel THEY need to end their session on a ‘good note’?
I believe there are several reasons.
A) Dog training is a culture, and whichever sub section of that culture you subscribe to, seems irrelevant. The cultural traditions and norms still run through all facets of the ‘culture’. So ‘ending’ your session is a concept that is cultural.
B) People who gravitate to a reinforcement based system of dog training, largely want to reinforce their dog, or in more simplistic terms, be ‘nice’ to them. So if a session involves challenges or struggles, or some failure and no reinforcement delivered, the moral obligation is to reward the dog at the end, or engineer the dog getting reinforcement. This is regardless of what the dog is learning.
C) Being flippant in their delivery of reinforcement, rather then mindful and strategic. The Bob Baily mantra ‘think plan do, review’, resonates in my mind constantly and allows for mindful and purposeful training with intent, rather then casual practicing or rehearsing.
D) Failing to acknowledge the effective and timely delivery of reinforcement as information. So petting your dog in attempt to pacify them, when they demand bark at you, is actually reinforcing them for exactly the behaviour you want to stop.
Reinforcement based dog training heightens the need to ensure your communication is ultra effective. As a cross over dog trainer, the amount of awareness, thinking and analysis I now have to do in comparison to how I initially trained dogs, is like night and day. Dont get me wrong, I’ve always been a trainer that ‘think, plans and do’s….’ but now I have to be aware of the smallest nuance of behaviour, placement of reinforcement, differential reinforcement, schedules of reinforcement, generalising the smallest detail…. the list is endless. But for me, there in lies the joy. Although it sounds overwhelming, really it isn’t once you have that light switch turned on to this approach to training.
So, the not receiving a reward or the specific reward they may want, isn’t necessarily about being nice or nasty… its information to the dog. And ending your session and the dog not getting his best toy or favourite food, is information to the dog. Or even walking out of a competition ring and asking your dog to do more, isn’t being ‘mean’….it would all depend on your dogs capability, whether their performance was average or better and what schedule of reinforcement they have each behaviour/behaviour chain on.
I am also very much aware of classical conditioning and the power of the dog wanting to play the game, so this concept should again be implemented with thought and consideration.
So next time you want to end your session on a good note, ensure the ‘good note’ is appropriate. Reinforcement builds behaviour…. just ensure the behaviour you are building is the behaviour you want 😉