In a recent blog, I talked about the value of three second behaviors in distracting environments. I suggested setting the dog up for success by using simple behaviors so that your dog can develop the habit of accuracy and love of work, regardless of location.

There is another time when three second behaviors make a lot of sense.  This is when the dog wants the reinforcer so badly that they are working on the edge of unhealthy frustration.

Some frustration is good and drives behavior.  Realistically, if a dog doesn’t care about what you have to offer, then you’ll see rather poor quality behaviors.  Your dog has to care, and caring and frustration are closely linked.

But if your dog cares too much, then if your dog perceives an excessive delay between reinforcers then this can cause sufficient frustration that the dog is no longer able to think.  When this happens we say that the dog has gone “over threshold.” These dogs scream, whine, spin. bite, and basically lose control of both their physical and mental behaviors.  This is especially common in working venues such as IPO, field work, or any activity where the dog is extremely attracted to the activity or the chosen motivator.

When the dog expresses these undesirable behaviors, some trainers say that ‘controlling reinforcers” doesn’t work in training because the dog becomes unmanageable and refuses to cooperate.  I would argue the opposite; controlling reinforcers always works, as long as three conditions are met:  1) the handler asks for a reasonable amount of work for each opportunity to access that reinforcer, 2) the dog is 100% clear on what they must do to earn the reinforcer and 3) there is no chance for self rewarding, especially in the initial learning stages.  As the dog becomes aware of what is required to earn reinforcement, frustration decreases while compliance increases.  The dog then channels their energy into completing requested behaviors as quickly as possible to whatever level of criteria the trainer has held.  To get to this point requires breaking behaviors down into small and manageable pieces.

When I first trained Lyra for a chance to play fetch in the pool (her highest value motivator) I was asking too much and her frustration behaviors were obvious and non-productive.  This eroded her accuracy and made it very difficult to work her close to the pool. This summer I got smarter and broke her training down much further, and the frantic behaviors went away rather quickly.  Here is a video from last summer when I was “lumping”.  Allowing a dog to work in this frantic state is not good training:

By contrast, here’s a video of Lyra this summer.

Note that now she is both “clear headed”(another way of saying “under threshold”) and enthusiastic.  This year, rather than asking for long behavior chains that are likely to be faulty under excessive frustration, I ask for three second behaviors first and then string them together.  As Lyra demonstrates the capacity to perform, then I ask for more.

In this second video you can see that I start with a simple three second behavior – “find front” on cue.  This behavior is easy for her.  Next I ask her to hold the dumbbell quietly in front position. This is more challenging for her when excited but she has mastered this skill, so I now have a chain that includes both front and hold.  Next,  I add a simple retrieve on the flat.  I could have placed the dumbbell and had her retrieve in my direction only which would have broken this chain down further, but I forgot:).  Finally, I ask for a dumbbell retrieve where she also has to “find front”.  This is the more difficult because it takes longer and there are several components to complete in order to be correct.  (Stay, retrieve directly, sit straight, and hold quietly).

Slowly and over time, I can increase the quantity of behaviors and the chains that I request, and her head stays “clear” because she knows exactly how to win.  This is not the time to hurry; be absolutely certain that the dog can complete each behavior correctly under lower levels of distraction before asking more.

Before moving from the easiest behavior, you must be convinced that your dog understands the relationship between getting what they want (a chance to swim) and what you want (an accurate behavior or chain).  If your dog does not understand that they have absolute control over the situation then you will encounter undesirable frustration behaviors.

If you do encounter frustration behaviors, end the session.  Next time, ask for a behavior or a chain that you feel very confident is easy to perform, and then build from there.  If you are including precision work (fronts and finishes) consider pulling those out of the chain to allow for more success, at least initially.

Remember that as a general rule, you want at least two successes for every failure.  If you’re exceeding that, rethink your training plan.  If your dog is beginning to wind up with vocalization, spinning biting, etc, be aware that you are building frantic behavior into your chains, and those can become extremely difficult to extinguish.  End the session and when you re-start, shorten the chain.

If your high arousal motivator is “portable” and you can take it to dog shows (food, toys, etc) then work up to using it as the final reward for all of your competition behaviors in a long chain.  If your high arousal motivator is not portable (for example, the swimming pool), then the value of the motivator is limited to providing muscle memory and habit.  For example, if I work Lyra on her dumbbell hold in the pool area, her retrieve away from the pool is always much better because of the habit she has developed.