This blog will explore a second circumstance under which I’m likely to reward a dog who is making errors within a behavior chain. In this circumstance, If a normally un-engaged dog exhibits a significantly more enthusiastic attitude than what is typical for that dog, then a reward could be in order.  In effect, I’m rewarding an attitude at the expense of a behavior.

To be clear.  I’m not rewarding the dog to CAUSE the improvement in attitude, but if the dog brings it to the table then I want to acknowledge it.  The dog’s improved attitude drives my behavior; I am not using the cookie to drive the dog’s behavior.

Here’s a human example to give you a a better idea of my reasoning.

Imagine that you’re a relatively reserved person by temperament, but you find yourself telling a story with great excitement.  Just as you’re getting completely wound up, your listener interrupts to ask you to speak more slowly and clearly.  While you might finish your story, the interruption will likely deflate you, and now it’s just not so much fun to tell your story.  If you’re normally confident and excited, then an interruption might be just what you need to help you improve your storytelling skills, but if you’re less confident or more reserved by nature, then this could kill your storytelling career altogether.

Your excitement level is directly related to your belief that your audience is also captivated by your story; that you’re on the same page.  While the interruption will probably slow you down,  it will also change how you feel about telling your story and quite likely,  how you feel about the person who interrupted your enthusiastic start.

Let’s consider our dogs.  The question to ask yourself is this:   “Is breaking the  flow of training on this occasion worth the cost?”  Keep in mind that you’re actually interrupting both the behavior chain AND the dog’s enthusiasm at that moment. If your dog tends to struggle with attitude then it might make more sense to focus on that factor than on the precision chain.

Both speed and precision can be trained but dogs (like people) have natural tendencies.  I find it much easier to train precision into a “high” dog than to add speed to a “low” dog. (The same is true of children.  Getting a shy child to perform with confidence is much harder than teaching self control to an exuberant child)   As a result, I will reward a dog showing unusual amounts of  energy and confidence to get a better overall picture and more long term toughness, even if that means I’m allowing precision errors.  I ignore the errors to maintain the “flow” of a fast paced training session, because restarting chains always breaks that flow.

A great dog training session is a conversation.    A dog who comes to a training session especially engaged offers a valuable opportunity to build an exciting and worthwhile relationship.  Your dog’s attitude needs to be nurtured if you want to keep it!  You may not agree with every word in the conversation, but don’t interrupt.  Over time, as your storyteller’s confidence grows, you’ll have a chance to get in your opinion. In the meantime, let your dog be the storyteller; the center of attention!

Let’s use my young dog Brito as an example.  Brito is a happy worker, but he is not a high energy or  intense working dog.  I have noticed, however, that he does have some sessions that are clearly “much better than average” in the attitude department.  When those sessions show up, I run with them!  Some people prefer to get the precision first and then bring the speed.  Others work for speed and allow a bit of slippage in accuracy on occasion.  I’m in the second camp.

When Brito is in one of his really good moods, then I reward that intense CER above all else, even though his actual work might be something of a mess.  Super happy dogs tend to forge in heeling.  They forget how to sit straight.  They retrieve extra fast but sometimes drop the object because they never had a good hold on it in the first place.  The examples continue; speed and enthusiasm tend to come with some specific challenges for accuracy.

To avoid ruining our accuracy, I focus on work which allows Brito to express his energy, such as heeling, retrieves and jumping, while avoiding work which is more technical or slower paced overall, like scent articles or long stays. I’m not using the rewards to create the attitude but I will respond if the dog himself brings it to training.  If I select work which is too difficult when Brito is in a particularly excited frame of mind, then I’ll consider rewarding the occasional wrong attempt and then we’ll move away from that exercise and towards something more appropriate.  Since I’ll actively allow errors of enthusiasm within heeling, I may see some forging or bumping.  That’s ok; I can work with that as long as his attitude is strong.

I want Brito  to feel like a star and sure that he can do no wrong!  Even more excited about the next session!  As long as we’re still in the training phases and not proofing for competition, this is not going to hurt his career. Experience tells me that dogs who believe that they are superstars in training have much better resilience when I start demanding more precision. These dogs will stay in the game longer and will work harder, even when the going gets tough and the behavior chains get longer or more complex.

Dogs that are more passive in their outlook; accurate but uninspired, are much harder to keep in the game when the dog begins to wonder if the value of the motivators is sufficient for what you are asking in return. Eventually, I’ll pull attitude and accuracy back together again, but in the meantime it’s possible that I’ve created some problematic behavior chains. If you only reward a behavior chain if it is absolutely correct then you risk a slower and more careful worker, unless you have taken extreme care to train speed and energy into each behavior in the chain before you pull them together.

For some temperaments of dogs this careful training approach works quite well, because they are happy to “bounce” into perfect heel position or quickly touch a target with their nose by virtue of their temperament.  But other dogs simply cannot generate speed and enthusiasm until chains are formed and movement or games are involved.  In effect, they require “flow” to create their love of work and without movement, they’re dull workers.  Practicing uninspired work over a long period of time will give you more of the same.

The trick here is to only reward dogs that make technical errors if the dog is offering a SIGNIFICANTLY better attitude than what is normal for that dog.

This approach does cause some problems over time as I tighten up my criteria, because dogs often enjoy those “errors of enthusiasm.”.  But the alternative, always working the dog in a frame of mind where they can be very precise and correct, just doesn’t work for me,  so I sacrifice some behavior chains over the short term.  When my dog is stronger and more willing to stay in the game even under adversity is when I will work to bring more consistent criteria back into my chain.

Decisions to ignore behavior chains are made to prioritize classical over operant conditioning. The more fragile your dog by temperament, the more you need to consider your dog’s CER towards you and training.  The “stronger” your dog’s temperament the less important classical conditioning is, because your dog is already driven to really want to work with you!

If you’re a truly stellar trainer who is extremely good at creating and maintaining each behavior to absolute excellence before you create a behavior chain, and if you have a dog who is amenable, then you’ll rarely run into any of these issues.  But if you’re a more average trainer, or if you have a softer dog,  then it’s worth considering the ‘less than ideal’ situations where prioritizing your dog’s attitude over a specific behavior probably makes good training sense.

In the next blog, we’ll consider the related topic of the “challenging” dog; either by virtue of genetics or an unfortunate training history.