Updated: Sep 5
How to chain your rewards and behaviours for lifelong training and behaviour modification such as teaching your ‘snappy’ dog to be happy!
The use of rewards in training your dog, and in modifying behaviour is a key element to success no matter what your final goals are. Many steer away from using reward-based training as they fear that their dogs will require treats for training and good behaviour for their entire lives. Did you know that there are many different ways of rewarding your dog? Did you know that good timing and proper order in your reward makes all the difference in how and what your dog learns? We will discuss the idea of chaining rewards, having one reward follow the other, in order to make a life reward (non-food) more valuable.
The truth of the matter is dogs learn best what works in life and what ends in good results such as yummy treats, fun games, and happy emotions. They learn to repeat these behaviours because they feel good for one reason or another. On the other hand, dogs, and other animals, have difficulty learning under pressure such as when being told no and other corrections for unwanted behaviours.
The reason for this is simple. Just like with humans, when we get into trouble, anxiety increases, as does the adrenalin rushing to the brain. The increase in adrenaline makes thinking clearly and learning more difficult than normal. In some circumstances, thinking, and learning becomes next to impossible. For this reason, it is always best to teach our dogs in low-stress situations and make it as enjoyable as possible for both ourselves and our dogs. Dogs also remember better what was fun and good. This is true even, and especially when modifying some of the most difficult behaviours.
To best understand the concept of teaching new ideas in low-stress situations, and chaining rewards, let’s discuss dogs who react badly (bark, growl, jump, lunge) at the end of their leash in the presence of other dogs, cars, bikes, or other moving items (triggers). Walking a dog like this can be quite challenging and unpleasant. Can we change this? Yes! But how? Believe it or not, the best way to achieve results that will have your dog making healthy and happy decisions for the rest of his life....without needing treats nearby....is through reward-based training. In order to successfully help our dogs in these situations, we must start by understanding what he is thinking and feeling.
What is a dog, who reacts poorly in the presence of his triggers, thinking and feeling? The first step to understanding this is in paying more attention to your dog’s body language as he is approaching his triggers. In analyzing body language, it becomes clear that most dogs behaving in this way are actually either quite nervous and/or very frustrated. Frustration, in this case, can be due to being forced to continue walking toward something that makes the dog uncomfortable, or perhaps due to not being able to rush over and check the situation out. Realistically, we cannot allow our dogs to rush over to other dogs, and people on walks as it is just not appropriate and we don’t always know what will happen when they get there. It also feels quite inconvenient to us to turn around or cross the street, so we
often continue to walk forward no matter how our dogs are feeling. Unfortunately, by continuing about our way toward the trigger, we do not allow our dogs to make the choice to get out of an uncomfortable situation; instead, they keep going as does the release of adrenalin to their brain. The more adrenalin, the less clearly the dog can think, and the more reactive they are likely to become.
How can we use reward-based training to rehabilitate a dog who reacts poorly around his triggers without having to rely on food treats? The main idea comes from Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT), a style of training developed by Grisha Stewart. BAT allows the ‘reactive’ dog to observe their trigger from a distance at which they are more comfortable, and to choose to look away, and walk away rather than react with a bark and lunge. After the dog looks away and walks away, they receive a bonus reward of a treat or toy/game of their choice. By working this way, the primary reward becomes the relief of being allowed and encouraged to walk away. The treat or toy is, then, the secondary reward making it easy to lose as the training goes on. This is chaining the rewards. Now, what you end up with is a dog who is making his own choice to walk away appropriately, and enjoying the pressure release even more than the bonus treat. Now you have a dog who is confident, and happy to walk away. What this does is help him to feel confident enough to get closer. He can now trust that he can always walk away if, and when needed! Jackpot! Now your once reactive dog can tolerate and even enjoy seeing his triggers with confidence and without the need for a treat nearby!
Do you have a dog who reacts badly to other dogs or other triggers? How can you get this process started on a walk before you contact a Certified Behaviour Adjustment Trainer (CBATI) to take you through the full BAT motions? You can start this process off by, firstly, learning your dog’s body language (visit www.pawsitiviveplus.com for canine full body language diagrams), and by secondly teaching him to turn away quickly, and in the presence of his triggers. There are a few rules you must follow:
Daily practice (practice at least once to twice per day for 3 weeks):
Practice calling your dog into you. In a quiet space (no triggers around), walk your dog and without notice stop, call his name, take several steps backwards. As soon as he turns in your direction, say “YES” or Click (if you use a clicker), and reward him with a yummy treat. As you want this to be something he MUST respond to as soon as he hears his name, use very high valued treats like chicken, hot dogs, cheese, or even steak for this training. This will help so he just can’t resist the trained response when he hears his name.
On a walk (at the sight of EVERY trigger):
Notice your dog becoming alert (ears up, tail up, body tightens) as soon as he sees his trigger.
Before he barks or lunges, say ‘look at that!’ in a happy, calm voice.
Call his name as you have practiced daily, and walk backwards, “YES”/Click when he turns your
way, and reward with something extra special, and maybe even give two treats!
Continue to walk in the opposite direction of the trigger. As you walk away, every time he looks
back at his trigger, and turns his head back in your direction, “YES”/Click, and reward again.
It is important to help him walk away from his trigger. We want him to start to feel the release of the pressure he normally feels when he has to walk toward his trigger. The rewards are being given for turning his head away and walking away. Although your dog, in this situation, is not working through all the steps he would in a controlled set up as your CBATI would set up for you, he is learning to look, acknowledge, turn, and walk away. He will still feel the pressure release and appreciate it before he even gets the treats. It is important to understand that by helping him to walk away from the situation before he is so upset that he starts to bark, lunge and get carried away, you are preventing that extreme adrenalin rush, and sense of panic that he normally feels. This will naturally help him to feel better about seeing his trigger over some time, and help him to know that you, his leader in life, are not forcing him into a situation that he is not ready for. This is key to him trusting you, and himself in stressful situations.
Now, in understanding, how we can use distance, and space as a primary reward rather than food for such a difficult behaviour, you can start to think about how to chain other life rewards with food so you can eventually lose the food part of the reward in all of your training. What we have described above; trigger, head turn, distance, treat; is what we refer to as chaining events, and in this particular topic, chaining rewards. By chaining your rewards, the primary rewards used to become more valuable to your dog if they are followed by something they already really like such as food!
There are a few things to remember when chaining rewards for daily training. When you first start creating reward chains, while teaching a new behaviour to your dog, always start by rewarding quickly with food. Once your dog starts to offer you the behaviour when signalled, then quickly slip in the new rewarding activity just before following it with a treat. Repeat this many times before trying to use this new activity as your only reward. In fact, first start to alternate between the chained activity & treat, and the activity alone before losing the treat altogether.
Have fun, and get creative! Enjoy your training sessions with your dog and keep them short (5-10 minutes) always leaving your dog wanting more. Repeat frequently, and once again....have fun! Training is much more effective when both you and your dog are smiling!
BSC, CAPPDT, CBATI Pawsitive Plus Dog Training and
Behaviour Consult Service Ltd.