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Puppy Management and Reinforcement (Week 1)

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Lesson 1.1: Management & Success.

Success is by design, not by accident.

You want to ensure that life with your puppy is designed for success. This looks like really clear management and expectations. Set up baby gates, play pens, leashes, collars, harnesses, toys, chews, thoughtful interactions, frequent potty breaks, deliberate socialization, customized experiences, and more I probably didn’t think of.

The thing is that success might look different in different households. If your puppy does something you don’t appreciate once, change up the environment and situation so that the unwanted behavior can not be rehearsed again. This is more important and more effective than correcting your puppy or saying “no”.

Limiting freedoms is one way of accomplishing this. However, this should not be taken to an extreme. Puppies still need to have agency in their environments. There is nothing that says they need to comply with your every wish or that they are your subordinate. In fact you will find your relationship and communication with your puppy much easier if you don’t buy into the dominance theory.

Ensuring that they have a plethora of appropriate problem solving challenges and choices every day will help develop confident and well adjusted individuals. These challenges should be different every day!

Every moment in your puppy's day is a learning opportunity. You can think of it in some ways like you are training all day long. However, this isn’t about you. This is about ensuring they are learning appropriate behaviors even when you are not around.

Lesson 1.2: Reinforcement Cues.

The first step to building a relationship with your puppy and beginning to get strong responses from your dog is going to come from the consistency of reinforcement.

A reinforcer is determined by the learner (your puppy). As your dog's teacher you need to find out what motivates them. It is worth preference testing what your dog likes and is willing to work for. Different food items, toys, and others will have varying values to your puppy also. Where they might be able to work for kibble inside the house but will care less about it outside the house.

Your homework for this first week is to find and label all your puppies reinforcers. I recommend you keep a training journal so that you and your family can be consistent about the cues you are going to use and precisely what that cue means.

We are going to start with a few of them in this lesson.

“Take” (aka ”treat”, “yours”, or “cookie”) = Take food or a toy from my hand.

“Fetch” (aka “get it”, “find”, or “go”) = chase and find food/toy thrown/rolled across the floor.

Click / “yep” = bridge between the behavior and the reinforcement signifying that reinforcement is now available. It can sometimes take the place of the reinforcement cue also.

“Find It” = 3 or more treats are scattered on the ground.

“Lets go” = Jog / speed up / play / be silly with your dog.

“Free” (aka “Break”, “release”, or “all done”. Traditionally known as “ok” but we try to avoid this word as a cue because it is such a common spoken word.) = the end of a stationary behavior or task allowing the dog to move up ahead and freely and go about their doggy agenda for a few.

Toy play - you can use any of the words interchangeably with a toy if toys are more motivating and naturally reinforcing for your dog. Play is a great way to engage with your pet and build a trusting strong bond.

I use words like “fetch” to send my dog out after a ball. It’s up to you if you want the reinforcement cues for food and toys or if it’s valuable to have a separate world.

Remember that these are end behaviors… The dog is not expected to continue the task. If you are teaching a formal retrieve then the ‘send to retrieve’ should be a different word. Hopefully, that's not too confusing.

“Search” = Food or search sent is hidden. Go out and find it.

“Say Hi” (for social dogs that find greeting people extremely fun) = release of restraint and they are allowed to go up to someone.

“Ready” (this one might not be applicable now but will become an important attention getting and consent cue for advanced learners.) = the start of a behavior chain or task meaning reinforcement is available after you do something for me. The consent comes from accepting that if the dog says “no, I’m not ready” then you do not push forward until they are ready.

All of these reinforcement cues should be linked to primary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer is something that your dog naturally finds reinforcing without any extra work!

As we move into what you probably think of more formal training we will start to do something called chaining behaviors. We are going to build less reinforcing behaviors to these highly and naturally reinforced behaviors.

Your chain will look like:

Cue: Sit > Behavior: dog sits > Capture: Click > Reinforcement cue: Fetch > you toss a treat away from you and your dog jumps up to fetch the treat now rolling across the floor.

We can accomplish this transfer of reinforcement by consistently pairing sitting is followed by strong reinforcement like fetch. After a while “sit” can become reinforcing on it’s own.

The thing to remember is secondary reinforcers (sit) must be continually charged. Meaning you must for the life of the animal provide a primary reinforcement for the behavior from time to time to make sure the behavior doesn’t fade.

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