If you’ve been following this series, then you know that creating a well prepared team for the competition ring is not a minor matter.  You need a thoughtfully trained dog who can perform in new locations under varying degrees of adversity, and who enjoy being in a competition ring.  But…there’s more.

Until now, I haven’t said a word about reinforcement.  If you’re a +r trainer, then you are using something (probably food or toys) to motivate your dog to learn and perform known behaviors.    But in the competition ring, food and toys are not allowed in most venues.  Ideally you’ll have a better plan in place than the miracle method (search this blog for more information on the miracle method).

Reducing reinforcement is both an art and a science.  Let’s start with the art.

To design an effective strategy for reducing reinforcement that will hold up in the ring, you need to know a fair amount about both your goals and the temperament of your dog.  For some dogs, the only thing you have to do is SUBSTITUTE ring appropriate options for your classic food and toy rewards.  With these dogs, you tell them they are amazing, praise and play to the full extent allowed in the ring, and cheerfully move on to the next exercise where they get another chance to earn…you!

Wow; isn’t that awesome?

Yes it is, and so far I’ve owned exactly one dog that fit this description, though I’ve encountered many more of them.

These “work for social interaction” dogs are fabulous competitors in obedience and rally because they truly love the chance to work and interact with their owners.  They have the temperament to make them excellent long term competitors at the highest levels.

For these dogs, lower the value of the classic reinforcers used in training (go from cheese to kibble), mostly to “mark” the behaviors that you are extra pleased with.  And then go to work using praise and play as the main reward!  I would suggest never eliminating the classic rewards, because you’ll need them to keep the tiny details extra sharp – and the kibbles can do that for you.  But the big guns?  Cheese, hot dogs, bowls of tripe?  Nope; don’t need it and probably shouldn’t bring it out, lest the dog stop valuing your personal interaction.  These dogs can work for relatively little reinforcement at all…a treasure to have indeed.  Just remember that you have behave in a similar fashion in both training and trial situations or you risk a very stressed out dog in the ring – unsure why you’re suddenly withholding the cookies and using tons of praise which is foreign to the dog.

If you’re reading this and shaking your head, convinced that your dog could care less about interacting with you, then you’ll need a different route.  If your goals are very modest – you only plan to compete a few times in your dog’s lifetime, then you may approach this issue differently.

For these dogs, slowly extend the quantity of work required for each reward.  Instead of a retrieve over high jumping earning a cookie, add a bit of heeling before the cookie emerges.  Work your way up to several exercises in a row before giving anything to your dog.

When you compete, your will need to fool your dog into believing that you have the cookies inside the ring.  This approach will buy you several competitions for most dogs because you handed them cookies before entering the ring and your dog is likely to assume that the cookies will exist in the ring as well.  Since you have made sure that your dog can comfortable working for extended periods of time, your “stinginess” won’t be noted too quickly, especially if you’ve done a good job with ring preparation (see the third blog in this series).  Of course, this method tends to make handlers completely neurotic and can permanently sour your dog on the ring if you suddenly decide you really like competition and want to continue on to higher levels. The fact is, you can only “fool” your dog so many times.

If you’re reading this and you know that you’d like to compete more than a handful of times or you’d like to reach the higher levels or actually campaign your dog to a UDX or an OTCH title, then you need yet another approach if you don’t have a “work for social interaction” dog.

If this is you, and your dog isn’t going to do it just to make you happy, then you need a bit more science on your side.

Your dog need to be taught there will be “intervals” of time where there will be no rewards.  Place the most delicious bowl of the most high value food on a table nearby.  Make sure your dog sees it.  Now, ask for one simple behavior.  When your dog performs (which they should easily if you did the proofing work I described in the last blog) go with your dog and give them the entire bowl.  When this is mastered it’s time to raise criteria a bit.  Make sure you are unusually “formal” when you place that extra special jackpot where the dog can see it.  SLOWLY start to string together more and more behaviors and exercises before releasing your dog to the reward.  Continue on until your dog can comfortably perform for longer than the length of time asked for in the ring.  If your dog ever leaves you and attempts to self reward, quietly remove the dog from training and end the session.  Don’t stop your dog from leaving but do make sure that they cannot access the jackpot.

For routine training and maintenance behaviors you’ll continue on as normal with minor treats for reinforcement.  Then, once per session, you’ll bring out the big guns.  You’ll get formal and your dog will need to perform correctly with no food on your body, no extra cues or help from you, and no begging!

There is no fooling your dog here.  The dog knows that there is no food on you during these intervals but soon the dog begins to understand that long stretches of several behavior chains will have to happen to get the big prize.

What if your dog fails?  If your dog actually goes to the reward on their own, then you have a proofing problem – deal with that.  But if your dog simply fails to perform, possibly because they are staring at the food dish, then you have options.  Pick according to the temperament of your dog.

Option one:  Reset your dog and repeat the failed exercise.

Option two:  Place your dog on a brief down stay or in a crate for up to a minute and try the failed exercise again.

Option three:  Reset your dog.  Repeat the exercise before the one that was failed AND the one that the dog failed.

Option four:  Place your dog on a brief down stay or in a crate for up to a minute or so, and then try the prior two exercises again.

Option five:  Reset your dog and start the ENTIRE chain over – the chain begins with the very first thing you did together.  So if your dog failed at the 2 minute mark, then you’ll repeat the entire 2 minutes.

Option six:  Place your dog on a stay or in a crate for up to five minutes, and then try the entire chain again, from start to finish.

Option seven:  Walk away from the session altogether.  There will be no second chance for your dog to earn that highly desired reinforcer.

How do you pick the correct consequence?  It depends on the temperament of the dog, your goals and your willingness to hold the line.  I tend to run between options one and four most of the time but if I had a very sophisticated dog that was being retrained, I’d probably consider all of the possibilities.

This is not a short term proposition.  Done well it will take you several months, so you probably want to start this process relatively early in your training career.  I started this with Lyra using the retrieve on flat.  It took about three weeks before she understood that whatever she wanted was contingent on an extremely high quality retrieve on flat under intense distraction.

The above described methods are not mutually exclusive and this list is far from comprehensive, but it should give you a starting place for thinking about the relevant issues.  Indeed, designing a plan to reduce reinforcement is a tricky thing, and the trainer should be flexible if it appears that changes need to be made for a given dog.

As we come close to the end of this series on trial preparation, we have covered the importance of creating high quality behaviors, generalization, developing a love of the competition ring, proofing and now…reducing reinforcers.  There is only one thing left and that’s you, the handler!  We’ll discuss that in the next blog.