B. F. Skinner published The Behavior of Organismsin 1938 and in my spare time I have been reading it. I would recommend it to those who appreciate long sentences and exceedingly careful demonstrations of thoughts, to all others I would suggest watching Emily Larlham on YouTube and Cesar Millan on YouTube. Those videos, made seventy-five years after Skinner, will show in a more accessible medium what he was working with in the early 1930s. Skinner was seeking clearly definable responses to clearly made stimuli by animals in absolutely controlled situations. Millan is working with problem dogs that have had various types of trauma and brings them back to living comfortably within a human community. Larlham begins with normally healthy young dogs, and using friendly positive reinforcement brings out the most lovable qualities of her dogs. With this post I will condense what I have observed about dog learning into some working suggestions for helping you and your dog into a cooperative relationship.
When first training your dog to do a new trick use only one unique spoken word and associated gesture. Use these consistently and predictably for very specific things your dog is expected to do. All words and gestures beyond the few he already knows well will confuse him and impede learning the new trick.
The learning cycle
- Leave the dog briefly alone to create a need for human rewards such as — hunger, attention, hugs and pats.
- For the lesson create a distraction-free environment including — safety, familiar, space, alone, time.
- Begin with a routine for the learning game — it’s now click and treat time, with toys, special treats, start with a few fun old tricks, like toss and return a ball.
- Have a specific new behavior goal in mind — sit, stay, heel, down, fetch.
- Always give a unique instant reward signal like a — click, short word, gesture, after any improvement.
- At first after every click give some primary reward — instant swallow high quality snacks; intermittent after the behaviors are near; but maintain a count of snack debts and pay them off.
- As the action nears the intended goal behavior — link a new meaningful word and a gesture just before the click.
- End session after a few minutes training by paying off all food debts.
- After finished give secondary rewards — effusive petting, praise, and happily dancing about.
- Provide a soft quiet location with a snack to stay, relax, rest, sleep and dream.
The dog should believe that his acts make his human give him clicks followed by really good snacks. As soon as a trick is known, go to a new quiet location and relearn it there, and with that success go to places were there are mild distractions, and with success there go to where there are even more distractions. This will make it clearer to the dog what your instructions are and what should be attended to, and what are just background distractions to be ignored.