Will I Have to Give My Dog Treats Forever?!?

The short answer is “Yes”. You need to carry a few cookies in your pocket or fanny pack, even when your dog has all of her new cues to fluency, meaning that she walks beside you through a crowd, leaves garbage on the ground, can be pet by strangers and ignores dogs straining to sniff her, can go up and down stairs and in an elevator all without a single treat.  Even then, you will need to have a few cookies on you, just in case the mounted police come by, just in case a bull charges you on your walk in Sibley or Briones, just in case a man with a squacking parrot walks by (this has happened to me on the same day I had to pass a bunch of cows with a pack six little dogs in Sibley), just in case, you’ll always have to carry a few little cookies.

The long answer is that when your dog is first learning a new behaviour, such as heel, what I like to call “Loose Leash Walking”, you need to employ CFR, Continuous Fixed Rate of reinforcement.  CFR means that every time your dog walks with a slack leash, or the leash is in a “J” shape, every step with a slack leash, is reinforced with a click and a cookie. 

“What’s a click?” you ask. A click, from a clicker, or a verbal marker word, usually “click” is a novel sound that marks the exact moment in time that your dog is doing the right thing and bridges the time between that moment and the moment that you put food into the dog’s mouth.  It’s Pavlov’s bell.

Once your dog has received 5 cookies and is walking right beside you, probably staring up at you, or your bait bag, adoringly, then it’s time to switch to VR, that is, a Variable Rate of reinforcement. The trouble starts here.  Folks tend to thin their rate of reinforcement too quickly, extinguishing the new behavior, and then they have to start all over again, although now, they’ve probably poisoned any cues they’ve used.

So let me break down all that lingo.  With Variable Rate of reinforcement, you get the strongest, most lasting behaviour, assuming that you give a cookie, let’s say from our example of loose leash walking now for every 3 steps with a lack leash, then a cookie after 1 step of slack leash, then a cookie after 4 steps of slack leash, then a cookie after 1 step of slack leash, then a cookie after 5 steps of slack leash, etc.  If the leash has been slack that whole time, I’d then instruct my client to give a cookie for every tree they pass, or every car, or every telephone pole, then every fire hydrant, and then maybe every cat, or every squirrel, bringing down the number of steps/cookie slowly.  This is an example of thinning the rate of reinforcement slowly, which is ideal.

Extinguishing behavior is what you probably want to do if your dog barks at you when they want food, or your kid whines at the grocery store. Extinguishing really just comes down to ignoring.  Ignore the “junk” behavior and it will go away.  The main thing with ignoring is that you’ve got to look away. No eye contact, no touching your dog.  If they’re doing something you don’t like, pretend like they don’t exist.  When you’re extinguishing behavior, you will see an extinction burst.  An extinction burst means that the behavior will suddenly get a whole lot worse before it goes away entirely. And it only works if all the grown ups in the household are on board with the training plan.

I’ll dedicate another blog to poisoned cues, but the long and the short of it is, if you negatively punish (see The Dreaded Quadrants) after a dog has successfully responded to your cue, you will poison your cues and your dog will no longer respond to them.  Like if you say “come”, and your dog comes and then you take them out of the park. They aren’t likely to come anymore.  That makes sense right? You took away the fun after they came to you.  Of course they’re not going to come anymore.  “Come” makes the fun end.

To recap:  no, you will not need to keep massive amounts of cut up hot dog and wear a fanny pack for the rest of your life, but, Yes, you will need to keep cookies on you for the rest of your dog’s life. My hope is that you’ll catch the training bug and come to enjoy teaching your dog obedience games and tricks, reinforcing your pup all the days of their life!