Food is the go-to reinforcer for much positive reinforcement training, and with very good reason–it’s a primary reinforcer, meaning dogs don’t have to learn to want it. It’s easy to divide into small bites and deliver quickly and consistently, so that you can get in lots of reps in a given training session or day. And it’s an extremely potent tool for creating positive associations.
By contrast, researchers have gone back and forth on whether social interaction with humans is a primary or conditioned reinforcer for dogs (something they learn to like by association), and a widely cited 2012 study found it to be less effective than food. Yet many dogs do seem to greatly value human attention, as evidenced by all the acrobatics they regularly perform to attain it—including a whole host of behaviors most of us don’t enjoy, such as jumping, barking, mouthing, pawing, and object stealing. And that’s worth exploring, because especially when you’re trying to replace a bad habit with a better one, there are advantages to being able to reinforce the new behavior with whatever the animal was trying to get with the old one.
For the past two summers, I’ve attended seminars presented by Human Animal Learning Opportunities in St. Louis with Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, an associate professor in the behavior analysis department at the University of North Texas. Dr. Rosales-Ruiz’s special interests include animal training, particularly clicker training, and he is quite generous about sharing what he and his students are working on with nonacademic practitioners.
At these workshops, attended mostly by dog trainers, he’s reported on the progress of various projects by his graduate students, including one by Chase Owens and Sean Will called “Give Them Love.” The goal of this project has been to further explore the effectiveness of human affection as a reinforcer in training dogs.
In the shelter environment, dogs who do enjoy attention from humans are often starved for it—and behave accordingly, sometimes scaring off potential adopters with their wild enthusiasm. Training is thought to improve their prospects for getting and staying adopted, but shelters have limited time, limited resources, limited staff, and if they’re lucky, a rotating cast of volunteers with varying aptitudes for training. (This is a conundrum that many entities are working to address, including my alma mater the Karen Pryor Academy, which recently developed a shelter training and enrichment course.)
It was in this environment that the UNT team set out to develop and demonstrate their protocol. They wanted something that worked quickly and was as simple and systematic as possible so it could be easily carried on by shelter staff, volunteers, and adopters.
First, they had to determine what social reinforcement from humans might look like for dogs. Clearly not all interactions with humans qualify. Some of them dogs find downright scary, and some they find annoying: It’s very common for owners to undermine their own training by “rewarding” a lovely behavior with a well-intentioned but off-putting pat-pat-pat on the top of the head.
The researchers in the 2012 study decided that a good social reinforcer would be four seconds of scratching around the neck combined with verbal praise. But Rosales-Ruiz says that wasn’t nearly enough: Petting, he argues, is the type of reinforcer that is best delivered continuously as the behavior it’s reinforcing occurs, like music or kisses, and not in little bites, like food. So the UNT team started with a definition of “affection” as calm, gentle, and sustained physical contact.
The training process they came up with had two phases, which Rosales-Ruiz outlined last weekend in St. Louis:
1. Teach the dog how to get the reinforcer—just as you would with food. In other words, make it contingent on something he does.
The students picked five dogs who jumped up on people under certain conditions, and chose two simple alternative behaviors to increase through reinforcement sitting and lying down, both of which are incompatible with jumping up.
They systematically entered the dogs’s kennels, bending slightly to greet them before they could jump and petting them in a slow, sustained manner with one hand for two full minutes—or, initially, as long as they kept four feet on the floor. No verbal praise was added.
If a dog jumped up, the person stood up, stopped petting, waited for four on the floor, and then resumed petting with one hand. If the dog walked away, the person also stopped petting.
If the dog sat or laid down, though, the quality and duration of the reinforcer increased significantly: The person switched to two hands and petted the dog, again with a goal duration of two full minutes.
Within 5-20 minutes, the dogs were sitting or lying down to solicit the students’ attention. And because there weren’t many contextual hints that the students were capital-T Trainers—no treats, clickers, or other special equipment—Rosales-Ruiz says the dogs easily learned to respond the same way to shelter volunteers and potential adopters.
2. Use the reinforcer to teach more behavior.
When the dogs would remain lying or seated for the full two minutes, the students switched to petting for 15-30 seconds, with very brief pauses (3-5 seconds at first) to allow the dog to choose to remain in position and “ask” for more petting. They began to use this interaction as a reinforcer to teach the dogs to stay for longer stretches, and while the person stood up, walked away, or entered/exited the kennel. All of these human behaviors evolved into environmental cues for the relaxed behavior. (Think about how handy that would be at home.)
To help clarify when the dog had met the current criteria, they incorporated a marker signal, equivalent to the clicker or “yes” frequently used in training with food to signal that reinforcement is on its way.
They chose a hand motion that looked like the beginning stages of reaching toward the dog. This ritualized motion—which people would be likely to approximate as part of petting anyway—could, with a little owner instruction, be consciously used to mark any other behavior the trainer liked, letting the dog know exactly what he’d done right and increasing that behavior in the future.
Some students played with this with their dogs at home to great effect as well, using the protocol to teach them in small, achievable steps to remain relaxed while they added distractions like plucking a harness off the hook by the front door, exercising on the floor, or leaving the room.
When the dogs were adopted, the new owners were offered a class in which the procedure was transferred to them. Rosales-Ruiz showed some impressive video of the dogs sitting and lying down patiently in an outdoor ring amid other dogs, adults, and children during class.
The UNT students are still studying “Give Them Love” and are in the process of building a website where they hope to share the protocol with shelters and pet owners.
I’ve written before about how “training” is much more than the hour a a week you spend at dog class, and how if you understand a few basic principles of behavior and are a good observer of your dog, you can structure informal interactions to your advantage. But I’m eager to play around with this more formal protocol, and especially excited by the implications it may have for shelter and rescue dogs.