In this series on behavior chains, we’ve considered what they are, how to use them to your advantage, how to adjust your expectations in new environments, and in the last blog, we’ve looked at classical and operant conditioning and how a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) forms during both operant and classical conditioning towards both the trainer and towards training in general.

This part will consider the relationship between operant conditioning, classical conditioning, CER’s, and how each might be considered in training decisions that potentially lead to the formation of  behavior chains.

Let’s consider a scenario:

You take your four month old puppy to a new park for a little training.  You start a session and get a few seconds of work, which you reward generously. Your puppy wanted that cookie and earned it by offering behaviors that you wanted to see. That is operant conditioning.  You even managed to string together three perfect steps of heeling before reinforcing – a mini behavior chain!  All is well!

And then your puppy sees a butterfly and runs off to chase it before you have a chance to intervene.

One minute later, your puppy remembers that you exist and looks over at you.   You believe that if you call with enough enthusiasm, your (now tired) puppy will probably come back. What should you do?  Should you call?  And if the puppy comes, should you hand over a cookie? If you hand over a cookie, are you rewarding the recall, or the running off followed by a recall? Or should you go back to work and forget the recall cookie?  Or just pack it up and go home?

Remember that in the earlier blogs on this topic of behavior chains, we talked about the fact that whatever happens within work becomes part of the chain.  So if you call your puppy and reward, are you creating a behavior chain called, “Work, run off and chase butterfly, come back, and get a cookie?”

Maybe.  But in this scenario, the possibility of creating a behavior chain is probably not the most relevant factor under the circumstances.

In this example, did the puppy consciously choose to run off after the butterfly, or did he just go?  If the puppy made a choice (looked at the butterfly, looked at your cookie, and then took off), then I’d be a little worried about the creation of a very undesirable behavior chain since the dog is potentially learning to run away and then run back; talk about having your cake and eating it too!

But with a young puppy, it’s really quite likely that the puppy did not CHOOSE to go after the butterfly at all.  Its likely that the puppy saw the butterfly and the feet followed – prey drive kicked in and off he went!   And if the puppy was not conscious of making a choice, then there’s not much concern about creating an operant behavior chain.  As far as classical behavior chains, you dog does not CHOOSE to make those chains; they simply happen, and they become stronger with practice.  That’s why it’s up to the handler to manage training environments so that running off is fairly rare.  Over time, dogs learn focus, impulse control and a love of work.  The more these are developed, the less likely it is that a dog will run off in the middle of work.  In the meantime try not to let it happen (leashes, controlled training environments, constant contact, appropriate work for dog’s stage of training and emotional readiness etc. are all strategies to consider)

So back to the above scenario.  What would I do?

I’d give the puppy a cookie for coming back.  And I’d work hard not to let it happen again.

If you’re staring at your computer screen in utter disbelief then consider this:  There are tradeoffs with every choice you make.  It’s not all about behavior chains; don’t forget those CER’s that we talked about in the last blog!

What CER do we want your puppy to feel when they are with you in public?  Safe!  Happy!  Eating!  Approval!  Remember, the running off happened – it’s in the past.  The puppy is no longer thinking about what happened a minute ago, he’s thinking about how he feels right now as he’s interacting with you.  Make that CER towards you positive; feed and play, even if you’re less than thrilled with what he did a minute ago.

If you don’t give your puppy the cookie, is he more or less likely to come back next time?  Obviously, he will be less likely to come back.  And next time, as your puppy stands looking at you and thinking about whether to return, he is definitely in operant mode because he is making a decision based on prior experience.  Hand over a cookie this time and the next time he gets away your odds of getting him back go up quite a lot.

Indeed, the ideal situation in public with a very young puppy is a whole lot of cookies, toys and and play in a short period of time, for pretty much no work at all.  Just look in my general direction and I’ll do the rest.  The only thing the puppy needs to associate with you and being in public is how great it is to be there, eating cookies, basking in your approval, and developing a classically conditioned response to public places – keep an eye on you because food keeps coming.  Once the puppy has made that association and has developed a tendency to look towards you to get cookies, for no reason at all, then it’s a very small step to switch over to operant conditioning.

You just add some criteria – now you have an if/then statement.  “If you follow my cue then I’ll give you a cookie.”  At that point there’s no need to continue with free cookies in that environment.   The new question is, “what can you do to earn that nice string of cookies?”  At that point, if your dog decides they cannot or will not work that hard for the available reinforcement, then you can stop.  You don’t need to feed any more free cookies.  Just make sure that whatever criteria you are asking for is reasonable, so your dog is winning most of the time.  And reasonable, for a typical young dog in public, is probably one or two seconds of work.

You’ll make lots of mistakes in training, and that’s fine; even the most experienced trainers make less than ideal decisions.  Just make a point of evaluating your session when you’re back home.  What did you do very well?  What can you do better next time?  On balance, are you heading in the right direction?

If yes then all is well.  If, on the other hand, you find that you’re dealing with the same issues month after month, and long after the puppy phase, then it’s time to consider what you have.  What is your dog’s CER towards you and training? Is your dog actively avoiding  you?  Is your dog making conscious choices or simply responding to the environment?  If your dog is continuing to show you behaviors that you don’t like (running off, for example), how have you altered your training choices so that it is either impossible (long line or small area) or less likely (less interesting environment or better foundation skills)?

In the next blog in this series, we’ll consider an adult dog who runs off in the middle of agility training.  What are the relevant behavior chains, training considerations and CER’s in this scenario?