I talk all the time with my human clients about being an effective communicator, using treats (reinforcerement) as translators to the human language and the teacher-learner dynamic inherent with our dog/dog-parent relationship. I also do my best to use terms that are not too scientific in nature and when I do, explain them so clients can understand what technique we are using, why and what it means. So this blog is dedicated to that very intention; helping the dog community learn, understand and further their personal application of behavioral principles to the dogs in their life.
First, even though it is an obvious statement, it has to be made and at the forefront of working and living with dogs: dogs do not speak the human language. Sit, down, come, stay; all of these words are just sounds to dogs. So it is actually counter-productive and confusing to a dog to begin the learning process with human language and expect our dogs to understand. Instead, we should use capturing, shaping, and luring.
Capturing is one of the most effective ways to help a dog be engaged with their handler, become more confident and trusting and offer behaviors we want our dog to repeat. Dogs cannot get behaviors wrong with this technique. Think about that for a minute. Capturing can create a motivated and joyful learner. Our dogs can learn that working for us is fun and builds a stronger bond because their human is not frustrated, punitive, or inconsistent. Rather, we consistently reward behaviors that we like and want our dog to repeat. This should be part of every behavioral plan, but specifically powerful when used for fearful dogs. You can capture any behavior. For example, if you want to capture eye contact then every time your dog looks at you click and treat. You will then experience increased eye contact and focus. Capturing can actually then lead to training using a verbal cue word because once the dog is consistently offering the behavior you have been catching you can start naming the eye contact "look" and then ask for looks as a command. NOW the human word "look" means something to the dog because their was behavioral follow through in the beginning; the human word only came after the dog successfully repeated the action over and over again.
With Capturing we are reinforcing behaviors that are already happening so they will occur more often. So it begs the question, how do we teach when a dog isn't offering a behavior we would like for them to have? We use shaping. Shaping is another behavioral jargon word we use. What is it? Shaping is basically rewarding by approximation. I like to tell clients this all the time so they can understand the need to reward steps in the right direction. By breaking down a bigger behavioral task into essentially baby steps we are using shaping. The "place" cue is a great example. Place is when a dog is able to stay on a defined area surface until a release command is given. Dogs can place on their bed, a bench, a chair, a large boulder rock, a vet scale, etc. But in order for a dog to first learn what we want their body to do we use shaping by rewarding the dog for moving in the direction of the dog bed, then for putting two paws on, then all four paws and then a sit and eventually a down until we have shaped the behavior of a "place." And again the body being molded into what we want repetitively is where learning happens. We add the human verbal cue of place after the dog is consistently and physically getting it right. So that then the word place has meaning for the dog.
Now that we have discussed helping dogs repeat behaviors they offer naturally and using successive approximation to shape behaviors we deem desirable, now we are going to talk about luring. I always use luring. Because remember that simple statement in the beginning of this blog; dogs do not speak the human language. Well, dogs speak luring. One of the best lures is food. Most dogs will gladly use their nose to move forward towards a smell they find appealing. Simply, take a handful of high value treats (freeze dried chicken liver works well for us), make a fist, present fist to nose, and then draw your fist towards your body while taking a few steps back drawing your arm to your body, which brings your dog to you, name it "Come, yes" and reward. We have just lured a desired behavior and can use this technique to create a solid recall. It is important to know that a lure does not just have to be food. A lure is anything that your dog will follow closely and reliably. If your dog is not interested in following then we need to change the lure. Think of lures as translators when you use the lure-reward method. One of the reasons I like this teaching method so much is the versatile cues that can be learned force-free; a sit, down, stand, up, spin, bow or come (to name a few) can all be taught using luring.
The application of capturing, shaping and luring are reliant on a person knowing and effectively using reinforcers and markers. You have all probably heard of positive reinforcement, high value reinforcers and rewarding a behavior. In order for a reinforcer to be effective the dog has to want it. Typically there are four common reinforcers we use to positiively condition behavior: 1) food and treats 2) physical praise 3) verbal praise and 4) toys (tugging/fetching). Some dogs would prefer to work for food while others would prefer physical connection and touch. I have a dog that will do anyting for a toy and we use that drive to teach new behaviors and reinforce behaviors we like. Capturing, shaping and luring are all dependent on finding effective reinforcers. A reinforcer is simply defined as something that increases a behavior. There are negative reinforers too. A negative reinforcer would be a thing a person or animal tries to avoid. For instance, if a dog pulls on a leash the handler can use any of the above techniques to teach the dog to walk loosely. Capturing- every time the leash is loose, mark it and reward so the dog learns he only gets a treat when there is not tension on the leash. Shaping- the handler moves directions and adds sits, returns and looks to shape the dog into learning to walk loosely. Luring- the handler has a treat hand and keeps it by their leg and dogs nose to lure the dog to walk at the person's pace instead of pulling. Negative reinforcement- every time the dog pulls, the dog receives a leash tug and works to avoid an unpleasant tightening tug. In all of these scenarios, I have to ask which ones leaves out teaching the dog replacement behaviors, is less motivating and more correction only based? Negative reinforcement. If you have to cause your dog pain and pain avoidance as a "teaching method" when there are other kinder, more effective and respectful methods; I have to ask who has the real shortcommings, the humans or the dogs?
A marker is a sound, noise or word that tells the dog they got a behavior right. Timing is just as important as the marker. When working with a dog I suggest being silent in the beginning. Why? Because humans are really wordy, we say a lot, we make a lot of noise, we move our bodies a lot and our dogs don't really have a way of knowing what we are doing, what is a communication to them and it can lead to us not being very effective communicators. For instance, a learning environment that is based on a clicker is more concise and clear than one that is full of words a dog doesn't know. To use a marker, choose what you want to mark the good behavior. A clicker, a whistle, the word "yes" or "right" are common choices. As soon as the dog sits, for example, you mark the sit, name the sit and reward the sit. There honestly is not a whole lot to explain with marking. It is a simple concept, a vital one to achieve behavioral results and dependent on superb timing. Marking too early communicates the "wrong" behavior was the "right" one and marking too late does the same. Being self-reflective, videoing your sessions with your dog(s) and practice are all ways to be have successful behaviors, mental states and choices marked.
I hope this has helped explain the definition, function and application of a few of the common behavioral principles behaviorists use when working with you and your canine companion(s). Maybe even you are using some of these techniques, but didn't realize it until now. We are looking forward to Part II of this blog so we can delve into more jargon, why we use it and how, in the hopes of inspiring more people to get up and invest in their dog's mental, physical and whole being. We believe that the science speaks for itself but it is up to us as guardians to create relationships with learning histories that bring out our dogs inner potential and behavioral peaks. As always, happy growing together!