No means Yes? How your reinforcer may be punishing.

Just recently I got to sit down and watch Kathy Sdao’s “What not to Err”.  With her unique energy and quirkyness she touched on several things we do wrong when training our dog. This is for trainers and owners since we are both.  The most impressionable part of the presentation was her explanation of improper sequencing and how your food reward can be infected by punishment.  Two separate topics that can ruin training.

In sequencing it can be as simple as having your hand in the treat bag when you are clicking your dog for a finished behavior. I catch this all the time in my clients and sometimes myself if I am reinforcing very quickly.  Essentially you might as well drop the clicker if you are having trouble her since your hand in the bag is your new conditioned reinforcer.  Keeping it there and practicing clicking will make the clicker irrelevant and that would suck.  Another training misstep comes when your are working say with a fearful dog who doesn’t like other dogs or stimuli. You may offer a treat prior to the dog or trigger to help get through the situation and while you will surely distract the dog, you inadvertently tell the dog that the treat mean there is a scary thing approaching.  This happens in your vet’s office everyday.  Many vets give a cookie right before the shots or before any probing.  This is one reason there are dogs who people believe aren’t food motivated.  If you knew the food meant something scary is coming would you eat? This phenomenon is explained like this.  The emotion of the second stimulus always infects (backward in time) the emotion of the first stimulus.  The fear of the dog infects infects the previously good emotion of the food.

Now to address how you can make no mean yes or punishment mean reinforcement we go into improper sequencing and timing of corrections/rewards.  Have you ever seen a leash pop followed immediately by a treat for compliance.  It happens all the time. I have even been guilty.  Well that leash pop eventually turns into the reinforcer since the emotion of the food infects the correction.  So your NO just became a Yes.  I wonder why your pulling harder than ever and correcting more and more without any results?  This is Classical conditioning at its rawest form.  This happens with people too.  Has your bank ever sent a note that says, “Dear valued Customer”?  Well as nice as that sounds you know it probably isn’t going to be good.

So if you are using corrections please leave some space inbetween the reinforcer or better yet learn how to squash the corrections in the first place.  Make sure you are adding the reinforcer after the dog is aware of the stimulus or after a certain behavior because even more importantly you aren’t actually conditioning the dog to accept the scary dog at all unless the food comes after the sound or appearance of the dog.  If you haven’t seen Kathy Sdao talk or read her work I highly advise you do as well. She is full of great info and fun to watch.