Reinforcing Religiously!

As a professional dog trainer, Dog Sports coach and online coach, I am privileged to be able to work with people across the Globe, in a variety of sports. In addition to, my online training platform, where I offer course for foundation for dog sports and Heelwork training,  I also teach for the Fenzi Dog Sport Academy, and every 6wks I deliver a ‘handlers choice’ class. I LOVE this class, as people come from every part of the globe from every dog sport imaginable, with training challenges and issues that stretch me as a teacher and trainer. 

Recently, one of my online students posted a video in which she was working on a particular skill. Her dog was doing this skill absolutely beautifully. She had trained the piece that I had suggested working on and was absolutely nailing it.

However, she was also clicking the dog in between when the dog was offering to re-set and start over. The dog has an issue with barking through frustration. I asked why she was doing this, and she essentially said that it was a habit and that she felt the need to reinforce him. I proposed to her, that this could be what was contributing to the lack of clarity and possible frustration. 

Her response was a definite ‘aha’ moment and she articulated the response beautifully! She essentially captured the very essence of the discussion. 

As trainers that gravitate to reinforcement based methodology, we do so for range of reasons, but I would confidently say that a primary attraction for many, is the desire to ‘reinforce’ our dogs. WE love it! WE get reinforcement from reinforcing!

WE see the dogs expression and joy when we deliver reinforce and it creates a little ‘high’ for us. WE don’t want to see them fail, or the expression on their face when they don’t get a treat. Or worse still, hear them bark at us out of frustration or shut down, or start to worry, or wander of… Or anything else that may occur If we don’t reinforce.

Let’s be honest, none of us want to see our dogs not succeed… BUT are we actually helping them grow?

This is a trap that is SO easy to fall into, being handcuffed to your reinforcement! And even other methods, there is similar parallels. For example, when I used traditional methods, we were taught to ‘never let the dog make a mistake’, or ‘don’t put it together until you are in the ring’, or ‘only do small pieces, so they cant go wrong’, or ‘allows use props in training’.

It actually fact, the core root of this approach is exactly the same. We are fearful of our dog making errors. 

And the real core root not wanting our dogs to fail, is that WE don’t want to fail. We don’t want to ‘risk’ our dog NOT doing as we ask, or failing in competition.

So inevitably we avoid this.

But when we break down the ‘fear’, we are actually making a rod for our own back.

Whilst dogs are ‘not human’ there are so many parallels to behaviour.

Consider this a child or person learning a new skill. As someone that has trained martial arts since I was 5, we would be taught set patterns or ’Taegeuk’. We would spend hours and hours in ‘training’ working on each piece, and then slowly linking them all together. At home, I would practice and practice the routine, so that I could recite it without even thinking. Even to this day, I can go over each pattern as if by instinct. 

In my practice, I was allowed to go wrong. We would just try again. In my practice, I initially did the sequence in parts then linked them all together. I would practice the whole thing, and then to test my understanding I would do it back to front, or start half way through. At first I was hesitate and slow, and often started over. As I grew in confidence, so did my execution and deliver of each movement. I knew I knew the pattern and I was able to do it fluidly and without fail.

  • I didn’t ‘only do sections and not put it together till the exam’…
  • I didn’t get reinforcement for each single movement….
  • I didn’t have sheet in front of me, to follow so I never went wrong. 
  • I didn’t have someone tell me each movement so that I just followed their instructions.

And yet I worked it out, I gain confidence and ultimately received reinforcement. The sense of satisfaction and achievement were beyond anything I could have gained from immediate reinforcement or continuous rewards.

This is something that I encounter regularly, with students and clients across the world. They struggle to fade the use of constant reinforcement. But often it is more for them, than the dog. 

Often we perceive that constant reinforcement is ‘nicer’ or ‘better’ for the dog, but consider how fragile we are making our dogs understanding and how fragile we are making their confidence. 

There is a balance between appropriate ratio of reinforcement for the dogs to learn, but in order to create confidence and clarity, certainly for dog sports we have to strategically move beyond that. Asking for multiple repetitions of a behaviour or a behaviour chain, are necessary evils to prepare your dog for complete. The mantra, ‘Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail’ is so applicable in this situation. 

I’ll be honest… I HATE it!! I hate not reinforcing my dogs frequently or for every behaviour… BUT I know that ultimately I am eroding THEIR confidence but not preparing them adequately. I owe them that much. And think of the sense of achievement YOU will feel, knowing that you have stepped out of your comfort zone and prepared your dog above and beyond!

At the moment, I am raising my two puppies… 7 month old Jungle, my malinois and 9wk old Hottie my Border collie puppy. The ratio of reinforcement for them both is very different. However it is something that I am constant evaluating and evolving to create within them confidence and clarity. They are allowed to fail, and make mistakes. There is no fall out, or negative emotional response. It is just behaviour that isn’t reinforced, they are being taught that of that doesn’t work, just try something else. Simple. 

By allowing them to train without an aversion to failure, as though it is a reflection of who they are or who I am as a trainer, I am able to create confidence in them and the appropriate emotional response to training. 

To join me, as I train my two puppies over the next 12months, click on the link below!

‘Thee Jungle Book’ is my latest online course, where I share the how’s an why’s, or building a relationship with two very different puppies with two very different personalities. How I create confidence, clarity and understanding in all aspects of their life, from dog sports to life skills.

For a glimpse into the type of content you will see in ‘The Jungle Book’, here are two videos of ‘Live sessions’ I have shared on my Facebook page…

For now, stay safe and enjoy your dogs!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: