To a lot of people, Positive Reinforcement training may seem like there's not much to it. And so, when it doesn't work, one might assume that it is an ineffective training system. And while the basic principles are simple, there is a science to it that when not adhered to will result in failed results. For the large majority of time excluding the most extreme cases, failure of an R+ training plan falls to the trainer and not the idea that "it doesn't work on my dog". The average person as well as many in the dog training field hasn't yet grasped all the intricacies of R+ training.
Here are some common pitfalls that many people make. This list is not in any way comprehensive and there are many other more advanced mistakes as well as other individual specific scenarios that make working with a behaviorist critical to success. Every situation, like every animal, is different and can warrant many different approaches. To really troubleshoot and pinpoint where the mistakes are being made working with a behaviorist is key.
Most Common Beginner Mistakes:
1) Know the value of your reinforcement.
Explanation: What are you using as your reinforcement? Is it something that your dog actually finds reinforcing? Many people don't put a lot of thought into what they choose to use as reinforcement. What most of us don't realize is that we don't get to assign reinforcing value to an item for another individual. This leads to us choosing reinforcements that aren't motivating or interesting enough.
Just because most people like chocolate doesn't mean everyone does. For some, it's downright aversive. Waving food at a dog who has just finished eating an entire steak may not be the best motivator. Choosing the right motivator relies mainly on two things; knowing the individual well and knowing the situational value of motivators.
Tip: Instead of relying on tasty treats that can quickly become boring with overuse, work on building reinforcers through game play that don't rely on the novelty of a food item in order to work. Clicker training is also an excellent tool for turning secondary reinforcers into huge motivators.
2) You aren't being clear about what is expected.
Explanation: You ask your dog for a sit and your dog lays down instead. Did you reinforce that down anyway? Or maybe your dog is allowed to jump up on the couch sometimes and other times that is not allowed. Did you make it clear that the criteria for being allowed on the couch is only when you invite them up? Maybe your dog continues to potty inside the house, jumps up on guests, barks at strangers, chews your shoes, etc.
Setting clear boundaries and criteria for behavior is important. Your dog is constantly learning and taking notes on how something they did affected your response and the outcome to their welfare. When something they do has a favorable outcome, they will continue to do it!
Being clear becomes an issue when we rely on using the word "No" or any other correctional method of training. Telling them "no" doesn't give them any information other than the fact that you did not approve of something they did. What was that something and what is a more appropriate behavior they can choose to make? These are important information they must have in order to be able to make good choices.
We discuss in more detail why "No" doesn't give helpful information in this article. Click to read more.
3) You aren't acknowledging good behavior as often as you should be
Explanation: There is a long-standing human idea of what makes a "good dog". A "good dog" will do what is expected of them. Many times, we as humans expect a quiet, well behaved dog to be the status quo and it is only when they start to act up that we acknowledge their presence. It is the same old-fashioned mode of thinking "children should be seen and not heard". But dogs, like humans, will do what works to better their current situation in life.
Behavior is a function of its consequence. A dog looking for attention will sit quietly for so long before it realizes that behavior isn't getting your attention. He learns that once he loses patience with being "good" and instead tries barking, jumping, destroying furniture, etc. is when you turn to acknowledge him. I'm sure you have heard of the term "All PR is good PR". In the same note, any form of attention is good attention in many individual's minds. Instead of waiting for behavior to progress into unwanted behaviors, acknowledge your dog when they are doing the right thing. And the rule is simple: You have to be paying attention to your dog in order to be proactive about find the moments to reward him!
4) You are unknowingly reinforcing the undesired behavior.
Explanation: This is an extension of giving clear information to your dog. Is your dog barking or jumping for attention and you respond with a "no"? Congratulations! You've just given your dog exactly what they were aiming for! Perhaps your dog pulls on the leash because they want to go somewhere and drag you along. Every step they take towards their goal is reinforcing them. There are many ways to approach the management of undesired behavior and that plan will vary from dog-to-dog and situation-to-situation.
Tip: Calm body language and giving them information on what is behavior you approve of by proactively reinforcing those behaviors will make a world of difference.
5) The timing of delivery of reinforcement is off.
Explanation: Dogs associate reinforcements and punishments of a behavior with the event that is currently happening or happened MOST recently. When our timing is off, dogs get confused about exactly what it was that they did that resulted in that outcome.
Tip: Try clicker training. When done properly, this gives your dog a world of information on what exactly it is that you wanted them to do.
6) You overly repeat the cue.
Explanation: Another one that falls under the category of giving clear information to your dog! Do you find yourself constantly repeating a command multiple times before your dog actually heeds that command? We sometimes ask for a cue and expect an immediate response before building fluency of the response up. This leads to frustration that the dog isn't listening to our cue and we repeat them, waiting for our dog to respond to one of the cues immediately. This changes the cue. We are effectively telling them "the cue is not DOWN but DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN. We end up conditioning our dog to respond to a cue after it has been repeated several times.
Tip: Say the cue once and wait for your dog to respond. Give them a chance to work it out in their heads and respond appropriately. If there is no response after a length of time, repeat it again once. The general rule is that you should not repeat yourself more than 2-3 times. If the cue is ignored still, move onto another more easier behavior and revisit it after you've given him a chance to refresh and to keep from building frustration. Once your dog is responding to the cue being given once, you can raise the criteria on on quickly they respond to it. Rewarding heavily when the raised criteria is achieved the first few times can help the lightbulb effect.
7) You are jumping ahead in your training plan too quickly.
Explanation: Often, we make big jumps in increasing the criteria of a behavior too far ahead of what an individual is able to achieve, erroneously assuming that a particular criteria is obvious or should be simple. Then we get stuck and frustrated wondering what the issue is because of that belief.
Tip: Break the behavior down into even smaller pieces. Start reinforcing smaller approximations of a desired behavior no matter how small the steps seem to be. We want to make it easier for an individual to achieve a small advance and have them find success multiple times. The more repetitions of success an individual has lowers frustration and builds motivation, making it easier and quicker to achieve the next small step. This is shaping; the use of reinforcement of successive approximations to reach a desired behavior.
8) The training session gets too repetitive
Explanation: Asking for the same thing over and over again in the same manner can lead to a host of issues. They may start to anticipate what you will ask them preemptively give a response which can condition them to chaining behaviors. This can lead to confusion and frustration when you don't want them to offer a cue you haven't given. Confusion and frustration can lead to outright refusal of behaviors. Other individuals may get bored with the training session. Being bored has a host of its own issues including inattentiveness and a propensation to being distracted by more interesting stimuli. That bird, squirrel, another dog, or an interesting smell in the background for instance.
Tip: Get creative with how and when you ask for cues as well as how you offer rewards. This is where game play can be key in turning you into the most interesting stimuli to catch your dog's attention.
Remember: If one training plan isn't working, get creative and find new ways to engage with your dog. Don't get stuck on doing things in a way that doesn't make sense for your pup. There is more than one way to *ahem* skin a cat. Most importantly, patience and having fun is the name of the game!