Reinforcement, if you leave me, can I come too?
Last week, I made a comment that I didn't want to 'go down the rabbit hole' of reinforcement and relationship in that blog post. Why? Because it is a huge topic and I think people who train dogs, are prone to beating themselves up when their dogs don't respond to them in the way they are hoping for, and we really need to recognise just how significant our relationships with our learners are. Coupled with what can often be an unsupportive culture in some training circles, lack of confidence, experience and we might simply opt to give up. So I felt it deserves a post dedicated to the topic, and likely a lot more!
I get it, training challenges with Tom and at times with Scout, left me feeling like the crappiest dog trainer ever! Yet when I got past that spiral of self judgement, I realised that we just didn't have enough history of how much fun we could have in training. Whether this was my expectations on how I should appear to others, the sometimes belittling comments we get tossed at us by people who need to be kinder, or simply our lack of knowledge and skills to change a picture in front of us, I was feeling like a failure. And as someone who hosts workshops and coaches people. The billboard sign in my mind was 'IMPOSTER'. It is funny how we reward based trainers are kinder to dogs than we are to ourselves and each other at times.
However, lucky for me, I am blessed with some incredible trainers who come to my home, they teach me and others, and I often get bonus cookies of information on our drives to airports, or even around the dinner or breakfast table. I'm so grateful for people like Maria Thiry, Peta Clarke and Natalie Kirkwood who I get to hang out with and chat for hours about dogs. Peta in particular, has taught me how vital our observation skills need to be. And I now feel that more importantly, our relationship with our dogs is a fundamental factor in being able to find what is reinforcing and is crucial to how good your non food/toy reinforcers will be. You cannot tell someone to have a good relationship with you. You earn it by meeting their needs.
Why do some people seem to have a dog that is so focussed on them and loves, loves, loves to work? It is easy to say they have a good relationship with their dog, but how do we get that? I've had people say their dog 'doesn't want to do the work' or they are 'lazy' or they are 'difficult', what we are saying essentially is that the reinforcement history isn't there yet.
I've had to accept with Scout, that early on in our training relationship, when she left work, she wasn't leaving agility training as such, she was leaving me. She was not comfortable with me when I had my training hat on. I was not reinforcing enough for her in that context, and if I was being really honest, I was likely a punisher for her. Same with Tom, when I only had food or a toy to give him, there were situations where those were not reinforcers, in fact, I'd go so far to say that food was a punisher in that scenario. Remember we talked about our doorways two weeks ago?
My lightbulb moment with Scout came when a friend said to me, 'what is her favourite time of the day?', 'dinner time' I replied automatically. I was trying to get drive through weave poles and it wasn't happening, and my silent frustration was certainly not silent for Scout. At only 4.5kg, my tiny sheltie must have been wondering why her best friend wasn't happy anymore, as much as I tried not to show it.
So we devised a plan to set up my weave training at dinner time, with her dinner bowl and dinner food, we would train our weavers. Nothing is slow with Scout at dinner! She is a Sheltie, who LOVES food. The fun we had with Dinner Weaves still makes me smile, her ability to hit her entry increased, we were dancing around the arena here with her having her dinner as her reinforcement for doing her sets of weaves. Scout's release from the front door to the arena went from a trot to a high speed race to the arena gate, Dinner Weaves is in the household vernacular now.
How I felt, seeing her have this much fun, was joyous. I'd managed to make my dog feel really good about me and the work by pairing it with the thing she loved most. The circle of Reinforcement and Relationship in a reciprocal, exponential environment becomes stronger and stronger. Think about that, have you ever had a boss who you just knew was going make everyone feel bad whenever they were around? I have. I know how I felt about my job when that happened too. I wanted to leave. Compare that to how you felt about a happy, focussed boss, one you felt like you could trust to not lose their temper with you and who rewarded your hard work with acknowledgement that meant something to you.
I guess we could say that relationships are about how we are reinforced. We don't enjoy being around people who don't make us feel okay. So why should our dogs?