The unexpected happens to everyone. It can be something as small as reaching for a glass at a party only to find that some helpful host has taken it away for a refill. It might even be reaching for a wallet and finding that you had unexpectedly left it at home. Whatever the unexpected event might be, it always takes us a minute to adjust. We need to search the mental database to try to sort the information into the proper places so that the unexpected can make sense.
These unexpected events happen a lot when you own a dog. Sometimes it’s something like finding a bit of kibble left in a bowl at dinner time. Sometimes it’s a walk instead of a run into the back yard when letting our dogs out. Sometimes it’s even something as simple as our dogs being a little too quiet in the next room. When things happen in ways that are different than we expect, we stop and consider and try to work out what might be different and find a way to deal with the new information. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the same thing is true for our dog.
As people, we all have different degrees of routine in our lives. Our dogs become part of those routines. Things like feeding our dogs at the same time each day or letting them out at the same time can create expectations for our dogs. For instance, in our house there is one last evening outing after which our dogs get cookies before we head off to bed. If my wife and I are busy with other things as the evening goes on, we can be assured that one or both of our dogs will seek us out to remind us that something should be happening now – something involving going out and cookies.
I am often surprised by people who tell me that they have to feed their dogs at a certain time because the dogs will pester them until they do. Why do their dogs expect to eat at a particular time each day? Well, probably for the same reason that our dogs expect their evening outing and cookie at the same time each night. We set their expectations through routine and repetition. We might not have intended to create an expectation but it happens. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
The devil in the details
Routines are things that help me as a human to keep my life in order and, to a large extent, those routines help me to manage my dogs as well. It can be a great help to have my dogs ready and waiting when it’s time for a walk or resting when they know that today’s routine doesn’t have anything for them to do for a while. The interesting thing I’ve learned with my dogs is that they notice a great deal more detail than I do about our life together.
When my Tiramisu was just a puppy, I was just learning about Mark and Reward training. The books I was reading told me how to carefully count out food treats and work in short, highly rewarding sessions. We had a couple weeks of fantastic training when I found a website that suggested that I integrate play into my training as an alternative reward to using food treats. Imagine my surprise when my puppy looked very unimpressed when I produced her favorite toy to reward her in a training session for the first time. She just looked at me and then at the toy and wandered around sniffing.
Eventually we worked out how to integrate play as a reward into our training but I now know what caused that initial reaction in my dog. She was facing the unexpected. For weeks the routine was clear. Do the behaviour. Get the marker signal. Get the food treat. Now the routine changed. Do the behaviour. Get the marker signal. No food treat. But the toy was there instead. It was a change that she had to accommodate for in her thinking.
Short term problem, long term gains
A lot of reward-based trainers like to use what they call “Jackpots” in their training. It’s a technique where, when the trainer sees the dog exhibiting a particularly big leap in understanding, they offer several treats instead of just one or the usual number. “Jackpotting” is intended to let the dog know that what they just did was something special and is worth repeating. Hopefully the “Jackpot” fixes the idea in the dog’s head that this new behaviour that they exhibited is what we were looking for. There’s only one small problem with this kind of approach. It could disrupt the dog’s expectations and learning process in the training session.
Research done at the University of North Texas by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and his team revealed some interesting facts about this “Jackpot” phenomenon. In their experiments, the researchers would reward a dog for touching a target on a wall with their nose. Each successful attempt would result in one piece of food. If the dog went to the target quickly enough, the trainer would deliver a “Jackpot” of 5 treats into the bowl for the dog. And this is where it gets interesting. The dog would quickly go back to the target again and when they returned, they would find one piece of food in the bowl again. Instead of racing back to the target again, the dog would sniff around the bowl looking for the other 4 pieces of food! The trainer had changed the expectations.
What this research revealed was that “Jackpots” disrupted the learning process. Since the conditions had changed, the dog had to re-evaluate and what was happening with the rewards and integrate that into their thinking before returning to the task of learning the behaviour being trained. The dogs recovered very quickly, within only a handful of repetitions, to their previous level of performance. This showed that while there was a temporary disruption in learning, the “Jackpots” had no long term effect on the dog’s learning or willingness to work.
To me, the important information in this study is that the dogs were able to accommodate a new reward type fairly quickly and function without a problem. What that suggests to me is that while variations in routine or environment can cause short term disruptions, over the long run these unexpected changes can broaden my dogs tolerance and understanding of the world.
Unexpected is just “variety” spelled differently!
We train the unexpected into all of our dogs now. From the time they are small, we make sure to introduce them to a variety of places, things, and even routines so that they learn to account for it all in their experience. We feed them at different times of the day and in different locations. This is important for us because we play agility with our dogs and weekend trials can often shift the times and places we have to feed our dogs. Helping them be comfortable eating in their crate or in the back of a truck just makes things less stressful for them overall. And we think it’s much better to start that training at home where we can control how much of the “unexpected” we throw at our dogs at one time.
The same is true for our reward protocol when training. If we rewarded our dogs with food at each and every training session, we would be setting ourselves up for potential difficulties down the road. So when we train, we change not only what foods we use (e.g., kibble, cheese, gourmet treats, deli meats, etc.), but we also integrate play, verbal markers, petting, and life rewards like being let outside or being released from training. Training our dogs to expect this kind of variety means that they will find these occasional variations less disrupting. It’s something they have experienced before and so it’s no big deal to them.
To us, training for variety in many aspects of our lives together is just as important as teaching our dogs good socialization skills. The short term distraction of things being “different” evolves into a greater understanding of my dog’s world. They learn that good things come in lots of different shapes and sizes. And that things that are “different” are less scary than they might have imagined otherwise. It’s just a matter of introducing the unexpected gently, slowly, and with kindness so that they learn to adapt.
Until next time, have fun (and some variety) with your dogs!
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