The BIG event!

We are most definitely in the season to ‘Be jolly’… and the streets are decorated with Christmas lights, and house adorned with inflatable Santa’s and Reindeers attached to the sycamore! We can sense that a BIG event is coming on the 25th of this month…. The excitement, the anticipation…. The dread at eating one too many Brussel sprouts! Whether you love or loath the festive period, you know that its on its way!

Often we we train our dogs, we forget this pivotal factor when training… We forget to make the process and reinforcing an ‘event’! We forget to let them know something worth celebrating is about to happen. 

One of the biggest advances in animal training in the last 30 years (the span of my career), has been clicker training. It has revolutionised what and how we train dogs. However, there is an integral part of that has been definitely lost in communication along the way. 

Often people focus so heavily on the moment when they click, meticulously marking the exact moment when the behaviour that they are intently watching for, occurs… yet the reinforcing and delivery is an after thought. It’s as though the learning stops when the dog is clicked and we no longer have to consider any of the subsequent actions that take place. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Animal training great, Bob Bailey describes the click as a trigger in a slot machine, where it then prompts a series of events to occur. This is a great way to articulate the importance of reinforcement processes. Or simply, making the rewarding an event in it self. 

I talk about the 5 W’s of reinforcement…. What, when, How,, why and where…. All these need to be considered as part of your planning for marking and reinforcing. 

If you were to train a sit, and clicked precisely as your dog put his bum on the floor and adopted the most beautiful position, but then reinforced by feeding from the floor, directly at the dogs feet….you would probably find that the dogs behaviour would change. It may start to offer a hunched sit, or even a down. Dogs are masters at reading body language and are experts at working out patterns of reinforcement. We can help or hinder our dogs learning by ensuring that our reinforcement process is conducive to what we are trying to create. 

Did you reward from the left? From the right? Did you throw or delivery in position? Did you use food or a toy? The list is long and endless but so important.

Additionally, when we click and actually deliver the reinforcing…. Are we giving ‘ourselves’ to the process? Are we being active in the manner in which we engaged and interact with our dog? Often, when people click their dog, they rely heavily on the ‘click and treat’ to common the sense of joy and euphoria we are feeling when our dog has done something correctly. This is a vital piece of the puzzle that turns ‘average’ into ‘exceptional’.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every time you click, you have to run around like a crazy thing…. But it does mean that this needs to be considered. Is that an appropriate choice for the behaviour you are trying to create or even the question you are posing to your dog? Does that moment warrant you ‘giving’ more? Or do you need to taper this to create a state of ‘zen’.  Is the event a crazy an ‘out there’ party, communicating your joy and excitement at your dog achieving a moment of genius … or is it a quiet, thoughtful moment where you allow the information to be absorbed and digested? Both are events, and both may be options.

For me, dog Training is absolutely a science and anyone can master these skills by understanding the principles of learning theory, understanding what classical and operant conditioning are…. But there is something, that for me surpasses all the above, and that is ‘relationship’. 

Most of us probably enter the world of dog training, because we love and adore our dogs. We wanted a means to spend more time with them and to improve our relationship. This should serve as the Foundation for how we choose to live, train and engage with them. So, for me, this should be the guiding factor when we train them and delivery reinforcement. Here is a simple and easy tip to help understand this point. Video a Training session with your dog, it can be where you work on anything you like. Then review your video and watch it without the sound on. What do you see? What does the session look like? Does it look like both parties are actively involved? Does it look like you are both working together? Does it look like you are facing a challenge, that you are building clarity around? Does it look like you are having fun? Asking these simple questions and reflecting on your training can often shed light on your training struggles. 

Thinking beyond the click, and viewing reinforcement as a process can totally change the dynamics of your training and the relationship you have with your dog. You can go from being the pez dispenser to the centre of their world, with minor changes in your reinforcement process!

When you reinforce, smile, laugh, touch and engage with the dog…. Scratch their bum, or rub their belly, let them go all silly and get excited, give them a cuddle or stroke them from head to tail…. Vary what you do, see what impact it has on your dog…. Experiment! See what your dog responds to… talk in a silly voice, clap them, tell them how smart they are…. Mix it up! Lose yourself in the joy of engaging with your dog! Make the reinforcing an event in itself and one worth remembering!

So go on, make your reinforcing an event in itself and celebrate the successes on the way!

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