Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reinforcing Polite Behavior Using NFL (No Free Lunch)

Positive reinforcement in dog training means is that a desired behavior is increased by giving your dog a reward for the behavior. For instance, if he sits when you ask him to, and you give him a treat for doing so, then it will increase the likelihood that he will sit next time.

But what to do if your dog is over-excited, pushy and obnoxious?!? It might seem like there are no desired behaviors to reward, and plenty of undesired behaviors to scold! If this sounds like your situation, then you are a perfect candidate for the "No Free Lunch" program or NFL. In order for your dog to get attention, food, freedom or anything else that he wants, he must work for it by first being calm and polite.

We've all experienced having a dog rush past you as you open a door or push you aside as you open a gate. Not only is this impolite, but it could be unsafe. This is a great opportunity to train your dog to be patient using the Evil Door technique. When your dog tries to push past you to get through the doorway, simply close the door or gate without letting her through. Wait for your dog to back off, then slowly open the door again.  (You may have to body block your dog if she's extra-pushy and will not back up.)  Repeat until your dog waits patiently while you open the door, at which point you can release the dog to go through the door.  With repetition your dog will learn to wait calmly by the door because that's the only way she'll get to the other side.  It's nice to build default behaviors (or voluntary behaviors) like this so you don't constantly have to tell your dog what to do or what not to do.

Different dogs get excited about different things. Some dogs are so food-crazy that they lose control when you start preparing their food. For dogs that love to eat, feeding time is a good chance to work on their impulse control. See my blog entry Incorporating Training Into Feeding Time for a step-by-step guide and video on one way you can do this.  You can also eliminate formal feeding times, and instead use all of your dog's  meals on training.  Just measure your dog's daily food allowance, put it in a Ziploc or treat pouch, and dish out the kibble throughout the day whenever your dog does something you like, such as coming when called or not jumping on you.  Many service dogs and detection dogs work for their food like this rather than being fed out of a bowl.

It's not uncommon for dogs to get excited when they see another dog. Of course, it's important to let your dog socialize with other dogs on a regular basis so that he doesn't feel deprived. But if your dog gets over-excited when he sees other dogs, regardless of the amount of socializing he does, then it's a good idea to do some training. If your dogs gets excited while you're on a leashed walk and starts pulling, whining and barking because he want to go say hi to another dog, then show him that only polite behavior will get him what he wants (the other dog).  When your dog starts pulling towards the other dog, stop and hold him back with the leash (just resist, don't do a leash correction).  When the leash slackens or your dog looks back at you, immediately move forward.  Repeat as necessary.  If your dog is a barker instead of a puller, use the same technique, except move towards the other dog only when your dog stops barking.

The opportunities to get rid of over-excitement and reinforce calm behavior are endless, including:

* Before throwing a ball or stick for your dog to fetch (i.e. as soon as your dog settles down and gives you eye contact, throw the ball)

* Allowing your dog to greet people including yourself (i.e. when you come home, don't enter through the gate or door until your dog stops jumping)

* Getting out of a car (i.e. wait for dog to sit politely while you open car door, and then let him jump out)

* Putting on a leash before a walk (i.e. if you grab the leash and your dog starts doing circles around the living room, just ignore him and wait until he settles down...and then put the leash on)

You just have to be consistent in rewarding your dog when he's polite and holding back or waiting when he's rude.   If you give in and let your dog be pushy about what he wants sometimes, then you give your dog the message that if he tries hard enough, he can get what he wants without being polite.

It's tempting to use aversives instead (such as yelling or leash-jerking), but I believe that your dog will be happier and learn faster if you use a No Free Lunch program instead, since your dog will be motivated to get the things that he wants.

With any training, be careful not to ask your dog to do too much too soon. Start small and gradually go bigger.

Happy Training!

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