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Secret Training Weapon: History of Reinforcement

Many dog owners search and search for the correct tone of voice, hand signal, or word to get their dogs to do what they want. If there was just a magic “tone” that would get the dog to come when called, for example! People will try a friendly tone, a calm tone, a warning tone, a growly tone. Maybe a new tone works once or twice, but then it stops working, and the owner is back on the search for yet another tone. Or hand signal. Or body language and posture. Or whatever.

Now, tone and body language and hand signals and cues definitely all figure in to your dog’s obedience, but not in the “magic” way that many people think! What’s the “magic” way to make your dog do as you ask?

Technically there’s no such thing as dog training “magic,” but if there was something close to it, that would be having a history of reinforcement.
If my dog comes when I call, it’s not because I’m using a specific tone of voice. It’s because my dog has a history of being reinforced for coming when called. It’s been rewarded dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s been reinforced with treats, toys, playing, running, being released back to play, going for a car ride, being let outside, being let off leash, getting to meet another dog, getting to say hi to a new person. Coming when called is a very, very valuable behavior for my dog and he knows it. He is going to come every time.

So your secret weapon is a “history of reinforcement.” How do you get it? With practice, but smart practice. For the majority of your training repetitions, you should be thinking in terms of setting the dog up to succeed, so cue only when you think he’s likely to do it. This will look like lots and lots of easy reps that he does successfully and is rewarded for. Every now and then you might throw in a harder, “challenge” rep to stretch him a little further, but the meat and potatoes of your practices should be easy. If you make it easy for the dog, he will respond correctly, he will get his reinforcement, and your reinforcement history will build, and that behavior will get stronger.

Trainers frequently refer to this concept as “building value” for a certain behavior or exercise. If your dog is constantly getting treats while sitting in heel position, then there’s a good chance he’s going to default to heel position. Heel position becomes valuable for the dog and he’s always going to want to get there and stay there. You can also build value for sit and down stays, for going into a crate, for sticking with you in the face of distractions, or for anything else you’d like your dog to do more and more of. It’s a simple technique that can be used for complex training; pick something you’d like to be valuable for your dog and then give it a try!

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