One of the great challenges of communicating dog training techniques to others is clarity.  It’s easy to tell another person what I “might do” in a specific situation.  Its a lot harder to ensure that they are hearing the relevant parts of the conversation, or that they have given me the pieces of information that I need to know in order to help them.

There appears to be some confusion between Cheerful Interrupters (CI’s) and Engagement.  In short, people are using CI’s to CREATE engagement, as opposed to maintaining engagement once it is already there, in the face of an error.

A Cheerful Interrupter is how I handle some errors in training.  In scientific terms, it is a “least reinforcing stimulus”.  I maintain verbal praise and interaction, but that is not as good as a cookie.  So it’s not a negative punishment but not the whole package either.  It is how I communicate to the dog – I still love you!  I will help you!  You are not alone!  And….I can’t give you a cookie just yet!  It is not a conditioned punisher because I use praise and verbal reinforcement both in cheerful interrupters and when all is well in the work, so that washes out. (Search this blog for the word “Cheerful Interrupters” to learn more.)

Engagement training is the process of moving responsibility for enthusiasm, focus and desire for work from the handler to the dog.  Because CI’s are always handler driven, they are a Level 1 form of engagement. (Please search the word “Engagement” on this blog to get information on that topic).

I do not use silence or turning away to communicate errors for two reasons.  One, I go to some trouble to ensure that my dogs LOVE silence and that it predicts rewards.  That is because in the sport of competition obedience, silence must mean that you are correct.  The worst thing that could happen is that I train my dog  to perceive my silence or withdrawing interaction as “wrong.”

The second reason I do not use silence to communicate that an error has been made is that for many dogs, silence is much more than withdrawing a classic reward (-P).  It is withdrawing personal approval and affection – a huge punisher for sensitive dogs who care if we are pleased with their efforts.  Imagine if you were working at a new job and you made an error.  Instead of saying, “No worries!  Let’s try again; learning is hard – you’ll get it soon”.  The person just….stared or turned away….from you.  And then, after a second of silence, they re-engaged.  Can you see how punishing that is?  If it happened very often you’d be afraid to make errors and you would avoid learning or, if the need for a paycheck made opting out not a viable option, you would develop a lot of stress around the learning process.  The worst thing that can happen is that my dog opt out of the learning game or stay in the game strictly for the classic reward – carefully avoiding mistakes to ensure it’s eventually delivery.

I’d rather have a dog make errors than worry about being wrong.  Being wrong is ok.  It is a normal part of the learning process.  My job is to help the dog become fluent in their work and to provide attainable challenges in order to build up the dog’s confidence under pressure.   The occasion No Reward Marker (NRM) for a highly engaged, confident and possibly overly enthusiastic (careless) dog?  No worries.  A regular diet of NRM’s or CI’s?  Big worries.

If I were 100% perfect at my job, there would be no need for CI’s or NRM’s, because I would only set the dog up for scenarios where they could succeed and my dog would always be fully engaged.  But I’m just not that good, so I will over-face (ask too much) my dog on occasion. I will select the wrong training environments, or changes will take place within that carefully selected environment that I cannot control.  I will push too hard and ask for too many repetitions. I will underestimate the dog’s level of fear or anxiety.  I will train when they aren’t really ready to work. I will assume a level of generalization or fluency that does not exist.

In short – I’m human.  Errors will happen.  LOTS of them.  Not because I don’t care or am not trying but because we are all learning together.  The dog is trying and I am trying.  We will both make mistakes and we both deserve some slack.

If you find that you are using CI’s to create the energy for training or the reason for the work, then you are doing it wrong.  Don’t ask a dog to work who is not in the game at the start because trying to pull a dog back from the environment by applying your human energy is counterproductive.  Stop working so hard!

If your dog is not bright eyed, happy and engaged BEFORE you start work it’s not going to get better by asking for behaviors and then using a CI to get the dog into the game – the dog was never there in the first place!  That is a case of confusing a need for Engagement with CI’s.

CI’s are not meant to be cheerleading for a dog that only works for rewards.  They are interrupters that allow a generally engaged dog to try again quickly and with minimal loss of enthusiasm.

Here is an example of confusing engagement with CI’s:

You start training your dog.  To get energy, you play with your dog with a toy.  You then flip into heeling.  Your dog leaves you to visit another person after a short period of time so you get super exciting to get the dog back, showing (but not giving) food or toys (CI) and then go back to work.

Your dog didn’t need a CI.  Your dog needed to learn to offer and sustain attention and engagement before you even started work.   Go back and work through the stages of engagement.  Using a CI on a dog that isn’t engaged in the first place is begging and eventually – since you are not giving a classic reward – your dog will tune you out and the CI’s will no longer be effective.  Then your CI will become a conditioned punisher rather than a least reinforcing stimulus.

Once you have solid engagement you can add work.  Then you can use CI’s to handle honest errors.  Do not use CI’s to create energy and engagement that was not there in the first place, because CI’s used in that manner are effectively Stage 1 engagement.

Stage 1 engagement is fine for a short period of time,  but SHORT is the operative word here.  If your dog is working at more advanced skills and you are still taking responsibility for getting/keeping your dog through a combination of classic rewards and CI’s then you’re doing it wrong.  Get the cookies out of your hands and teach your dog to take responsibility.   CI’s are not a substitute for focus and engagement; they address minor errors without harming your underlying relationship with your dog.

In summary.  Do not work with a dog that is not engaged.  When engagement is established and your dog makes an error, CI’s can be used judiciously to break the flow of training and to maintain attitude while you re-set and quickly try again.  If you use CI’s on a dog that is not engaged in the first place, you are using your CI to create engagement – that is level 1 engagement because the handler is causing it to happen.  Long term use of Stage 1 engagement will make ring preparation training extremely difficult because your dog will not function well without the handler driving the work. Further, you risk losing the positive value of the CI as a useful training tool.