In a Bad Dog Agility Podcast Denise Fenzi used a great example about negative reward markers by describing the of teaching of math to a little kid. If you are going through the multiplication tables and you get to the sixes and the child starts having a hard time with 6 X 3, do you say “NO that is wrong?” and make them repeat it 5 times? They probably aren’t going to get it right no matter how many times you do it. Better to go back to the basics, talk about 6 X 1 and 6 X 2, do the three’s, show a number line using sixes, etc. And praise the child when they are correct, even if it is a small piece. Those pieces add up over time! Would you want to work for someone who only told you when you were wrong? Or verbally pointed it out every time you made a mistake?
I have been thinking about dog training lately; specifically about how we communicate with our dogs.
In the basic essence and over simplified philosophy of dog training you are rewarding what you like and ignoring what you don’t like. Although negative reward markers MIGHT have their place in training occasionally, I do see them being over used. Things like “eh”, “ah”, “no”, a heavy sigh, slouching of shoulders, blaming the dog for a mistake, etc can turn your dog off from their task. And corrections certainly have no place in our made up “fun” sport of agility. Instead, try ignoring what went wrong, or laugh like a silly goose as you say “let’s go try again” in a happy voice!
These two articles (links below) are great at describing how things we do as trainers can shut a dog down. Nancy Tanner’s article says “Wanting or expecting a behavior from your dog that is perfect, and not allowing it to happen with time and maturity, will in fact shut your dog down.” And the Dogwood article says “Imagine if every time you raised your hand and tried to answer a question in class your teacher screams at you “NO YOU ARE WRONG”. No matter how many ways or times you tried to answer the question, you were told that you were wrong and never told what the correct answer was.”
Anecdotal evidence from my experience training Bob tells me this is true (my friend Amber was present and can corroborate this story). Bob is VERY soft, and doesn’t have inherent drive for agility. When I was teaching his weave poles he started out awesome! And then we had a session where things went south, I responded in a “eh” sort of way, put too much pressure on him, slouched and sighed, as I tried again and again, and he was done. It took many sessions to regain what we had. And I created even more worry for agility in his mind. I re-experienced this with him training a Frisbee trick just the other day! I was teaching a backwards circle through my legs. He didn’t quite get it, and started to worry (I can see it in his eyes and body posture). I decided to go all the way back to using food and going step by step because Bob was not having fun. I took my time, NEVER marked anything with a negative, ignored when it went bad, and partied when it went well. IT TOOK 2 WEEKS! Which, in my mind is a really long time. But that is Bob. And now???? You can’t get him to not to the trick, and he slams through it like it is the funnest thing ever (ouch, my poor knees and calves). But if I had made those “no” noises, I doubt if we would have gotten the trick to happen. And we just did our trick in public, Bob was HAPPY to do it, no worries!!
Try it! Go run a small sequence, and notice if you are correcting, using “no”, making the dog repeat, slouching, etc. If you are, try to ignore the things you don’t like, just be quiet and focus on the things that are AWESOME, reward those things! And then go back and break down the things your dog is struggling with, chances are you were causing the mistake anyway 🙂 so why would you correct or negatively mark something that was your fault? Agility is a game we play with our dogs. We are NOT curing cancer. And no body died.
Here are the two articles:
Hug your dogs! Run EVERY run like it is your last, because you just never know. 🙂