In Part One of this series, we looked at Behavior Chains. What they are, how they are formed, and why you care if you are training for competition.
In Part Two, we looked at Behavior Chains in heeling. A video example of Lyra showed both success and failure within a chain, and how to pull out a weak piece of the chain and work it separately before returning it to the chain.
Today we’ll look at behavior chains and how they are integrated into the process of generalization. Specifically, how do we handle reinforcement when a chain is excellent in one environment but falls apart in another?
Let’s use my nine month old puppy as an example.
At home, Brito can be brilliant for 15 or 20 steps of heeling with all sorts of turns and challenges thrown in for good measure. That chain earns a cookie. Great! That cookie reinforced the entire chain of excellence.
But in the local park? That same 25 steps would surely include sniffing, sightseeing, and in Brito’s case, almost certainly running off to find other interesting things to do. Considering he’s a curious puppy with many interests, his behavior is entirely normal, and there is no reason to “squash” his interests or try to force him to work before he is ready. What I need to do is allow him the freedom to choose between his options; specifically, limited exploration on a short leash or my fun games. My job is to make sure that I ask for such a short chain that it becomes a no-brainer for him. It has to be a much better deal to work with mom for one second, followed by a fabulous party, than to self entertain in a limited space.
That means that I have to rethink what is an appropriate behavior chain under these more challenging circumstances.
In the local park, I have to simplify my requests so that success is very likely. Instead of 25 steps of heeling, I’m thrilled with just looking at me for something to do. He can look at me from front position or side position. And if he appears to be inspired or unusually attentive then I can even see about one or two or three steps of heeling. My job is to reward before the chain fails! If he makes a mistake once a chain has started, then I simply step out of position and when he re-engages, we try again. Give me five steps of excellence over 50 steps of mediocre any day.
Here’s a video of Brito training at the local park. Note that all he really has to do is look at me with a bright attitude (the very first step in the chain). If he looks at me AND gets into position I will give him cookies almost continuously as long as he stays there. You’ll see that he tends to look away after each click/cookie. That doesn’t bother me because the treat ends the behavior chain. If after the cookie he does not look back quickly, then I step out of position, effectively ending the possible start of a chain called “ignore mom in heel position”. When I feel like Brito is settling in then I ask for a little more. Brito isn’t really learning a heeling chain as much as a focus chain; he’s learning how to focus and enjoy his work in the face of environmental distractions. To be honest, focus is much harder to get (and keep) than heeling, so it’s my priority.
Progress is slow and steady here but over the time, he becomes faster and faster to ask to work. Faster and faster to maintain attention. More determined when he gets to heel position. And that’s all good! By the five minute mark, I really have a dog.
If he is over faced (heels for a few steps and then leaves), then that’s fine. He can go. Without a cookie. When he comes back, we’ll start that focus/heeling chain over.
If after a couple of failures I realize that I’ve asked too much, then I’m happy to scale back on my expectations, but if failure happens too often, you need to re-evaluate your training plan. Frequent “scaling back” suggests that you are consistently asking too much of your dog.
If your dog’s inability to perform is a result of emotional distress (anxiety, worry, hectic behavior), then that’s different from curiosity or attraction to the environment. You need to get your dog’s head in the game before you even think about training. The fastest route I know to creating a dog with a lifetime habit of shutting down or becoming frantic in new places is asking for more work than they can give whenever you enter a new environment. Don’t go there.