In part 1 of this blog post, I discussed management, training and the intersection of the two. Now let’s turn our attention to the concept of maintenance.
Behaviors that I am maintaining are well trained, well understood, and have moved into the realm of habit. Here’s how that works:
After I have called my puppy into the house hundreds of times, and I have backed up her good responses with a cookie and my genuine praise, then I will stop rewarding most of her responses with a cookie and I’ll offer only praise or a life reward (to be discussed in a further blog post). People often ask me how I know when it’s time to start reducing reinforcement and the answer is relatively simple:
When I am no longer impressed by the good behavior.
The first fifty times I call my puppy and she comes, I promise you that I am genuinely impressed, and I respond appropriately. I praise and feed and squeak about how proud I am! The next fifty times I’m pleased but not exactly overjoyed because I have come to expect that behavior, so I hand over a cookie most (but not all of the time) and respond with genuine praise and appreciation. But eventually, I simply expect it, and my puppy simply responds. From that point forwards, cookies are either “surprise bonuses” or….
Something awesome happens and I am delighted again! For example, I call my puppy and I see that she has come even when she was looking at something outside the fence. I am impressed again! Now, even if I have no cookies on my body, I will tell my puppy she is amazing (I mean it!) and we will go together to the cookie jar for a treat. Good puppy!
The first time the doorbell rings unexpectedly and my dog comes away from the door and to me when I call, I can guarantee you that whoever showed up is going to have to wait because I will have a party with my dog first. I will bring out my best treats, my best and most enthusiastic praise, and my warmest response, because I want to see my puppy make good choices into the future!
But after hundreds of recalls under varying degrees of adversity, the time will come when even that recall is not so impressive anymore. My dog has developed a habit of cooperating, and that habit overrides most alternatives. Now what? Not very many cookies anymore. But….
without exception, things will happen in life, either because you arranged them as a training set-up or because they simply happened, that will continue to impress you. This might only happen every couple of weeks, but it will happen. Your job is to remember to make your response extra special when these occasions occur. It’s fine that you aren’t carrying any cookies around. Go get one! I usually have cookies in my car and I can certainly find tasty in my fridge, so 95% of the time this is not a problem.
At the point where I find that my puppy’s recall is a function of habit rather than conscious choice, then I feel confident that my puppy understands how to recall (is trained), has developed a strong habit of cooperation (is in the maintenance phase) and that my praise and life rewards are going to be enough the vast majority of the time. At that point, I no longer carry cookies on me.
And then, every once in a while for no reason at all, I’ll give my dog a free cookie for a recall – because we all appreciate a surprise snack on occasion, and my dogs are no exception.
Some dogs are either highly cooperative, highly motivated by your reinforcers, or not terribly environmentally driven, and these dogs will get to this point in a matter of months. Other dogs, either by temperament, inconsistent training or strong alternative interests/weak food interest, will take a very very long time to get to the point where I am no longer impressed by their recall. Those dogs will experience a good deal more management and ongoing training to develop their reliability.
And how about other highly valued behaviors, such as a solid stay while I open the door, or a request to have my dog go into her crate?
It’s the same; eventually I stop rewarding most of the correct responses because I am no longer impressed. I simply expect cooperation as a result of habit, and I get it. And then here and there, I hand over a bonus cookie – just because.
If you look over these three possibilities, management, training and maintenance, you’ll begin to see that they are significantly intertwined, so there is no logical reason to try to completely differentiate them. But understanding the basic purpose and approach to each is still useful when creating a training plan, so I have offered each of them here. Most of the time we start with management while we create a training plan and eventually we’ll work our way to creating a habit of cooperation with most behaviors, while possibly continuing to train or manage others. That’s fine – create a plan that works for your family or situation.
If you’d like a step by step plan to help you train your dog to cooperate even under distracting circumstances and without a cookie in your hand, take a look at the brand new book I published last month: Beyond the Back Yard; Train Your Dog to Listen Anytime, Anywhere! The plan laid out in that book is detailed, systematic, and requires a very reasonable time commitment of no more than ten minutes a day. You can buy the book directly from me or check out this link to Amazon (where you can also read some early reviews).