I don’t remember life before dogs and dog training. My mother trained dogs before me. In fact, she told stories of living in New York and training Lucky, her mix-breed spaniel, with Blanche Saunders, the author of some of the first books about dog obedience.
My mom, disappointed that she could not compete with Lucky, determined that her next dog would be a pure-bred. Ch. “Ace” CD, a Puli, was the first competition dog our family owned. However, his obedience career was short as he would not pick up the dumbbell. Her next dog, a pure-bred who would retrieve, was a Golden Retriever. She trained and competed with Golden Retrievers for the rest of her life.
Fortunately, we have gotten a lot smarter about training dogs in the 70 years since my mother began. However, teaching the retrieve still remains the single most controversial topic among obedience enthusiasts. More bad dog training has been done in the name of teaching dogs to retrieve than any other subject. Methods used run the gamut from begging dogs to retrieve to completely punitive approaches that leave dogs confused and scared with owners upset at what’s been done in the name of training. Sadly, people with non-retrieving breeds still fail to pursue advanced obedience degrees because of the trouble they encounter trying to teach the retrieve.
I have been training obedience dogs since the 1970’s. I started training service dogs in 1986. Having a dog that will pick-up and carry items for you completely changes the relationship that you have with him. He is no longer just a well-behaved member of your family, he is of service to you. Growing up in a two story house, my mom taught her Goldens to take objects from one person in the family and deliver them to another, most often on another floor. She had dogs that carried items to and from the car and certainly picked up their bowls when finished eating. Dogs retrieving for fun and for function became part of my life. Several years ago, I hobbled into my own home on crutches, fresh from knee surgery, and dropped a crutch. My Labrador met me at the door. When I pointed to my dropped crutch, he looked skeptical, but obediently picked it up. My recovery was underway.
There is not one way, but several ways to approach this topic. Most importantly, it can make sense to you and the dog. Using reinforcement, both positive and negative, you can have an extremely reliable retriever. It does not matter whether your dog naturally retrieves or not, you can teach any dog to retrieve and carry objects for you.
Step I: Shaping the Behavior
I begin by doing everything I can to encourage a dog to retrieve in play.
With a puppy, I introduce the dumbbell, or in this instance, a metal article, using a reward marker and a manner’s minder. The food dispensed from the manner’s minder allows me to get the food out of my hand and begins to teach the pup to move away from the treat to earn the treat.
Finally, whether or not I have gotten my dog to play with the dumbbell, I add some formality as shown.
Step II: Understanding Reinforcement
In order to compete in obedience, teaching a dog that he must retrieve on command is equal in importance to teaching him that he must pay attention. No matter how much shaping you do, you may still run into difficulties.
Recently, I was helping a handler with a setter. Already an accomplished hunting dog, this dog was a wonderful pointer, but absolutely had no interest in retrieving. After an admirable amount of shaping, the handler was making no visible progress.
As the owner of a UDT Maltese who was taught to retrieve using food, it was readily apparent that there were limitations in that approach. Although my Maltese was a happy retriever, I did not have any means to explain to him that mouthing, pouncing, or shaking were outside the AKC definition of appropriate. The best I could do was to try to withhold food for sloppy retrieves and use a reward marker when he did it correctly. However, because pouncing, shaking and mouthing were fun (self-rewarding behavior), he never totally gave up those behaviors. I could not eliminate the unwanted behaviors because when he felt burdened with the “rules of retrieving,” he would quit retrieving as if to say, “If I cannot do it my way, I will not do it at all.”
It seems counter-intuitive, but both of these problems, the non-retriever, and the enthusiastic retriever, can be solved using reinforcement, both positive and negative.
Growing up, I loved going out and “playing tennis,” but I loved it more after my father taught me how to hold the racquet, use the correct footwork and formalized my strokes. Likewise, I loved banging on the piano, but a teacher taught me scales, how the notes were related, and how to read music, and I loved it even more.
In the same way, teaching your dog to retrieve in a systematic process can communicate that he must retrieve as well as the best way to retrieve. Your dog’s enthusiasm will not be diminished, but heightened.
The definition of reinforcement is that it increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur.
Positive reinforcement, in the form of a continue on marker (ie. “good”) or a reward marker
(ie. “Yes” or clicker) can communicate to the dog exactly what he is doing that you like, and increase the likelihood that the dog will continue to offer the behavior.
Likewise, negative reinforcement also increases the possibility that a behavior will occur.
A seatbelt buzzer is a perfect example of negative reinforcement. When you hear the noise, you buckle your seatbelt. You make something unpleasant stop. Furthermore, if you get in the car and buckle your seatbelt before you start the car, you prevent the unpleasant sound from occurring.
If you have taught your dog that a pop on the leash means pay attention, you have used negative reinforcement. You have taught the dog that he can make something unpleasant go away by looking at you. In fact, your dog has probably learned that if he pays attention while you are training him, you will never pop the collar. Because he has learned how to stop and how to prevent the negative reinforcer, he has learned to control whether or not it occurs.
Just as you taught your dog that a pop on the leash means “pay attention.” You can teach your dog that something will happen that bothers him if he refuses to retrieve.
Likewise, when you introduce your enthusiastic dog to the rules of retrieving, if he gets pouty about those rules as my Maltese did, you will have a way to say, “But you must continue to retrieve and follow the rules.”
The correction that most associate with a failure to retrieve is an ear-pinch. However, so much bad dog training has been done in the name of the “ear-pinch,” that some of you are adamant that you will never pinch your dog’s ear. That’s fine. There is nothing magical about the “ear-pinch.” You can choose anything that your dog find’s unpleasant and associate it with refusing to retrieve.
However, just as you expect to systematically teach your dog that a pop on the leash means pay attention, you need to understand, step-by-step, how to teach your dog to control something that he perceives as unpleasant by picking up what you point to.
I absolutely believe that my obedience dogs are successful because I can clearly communicate two very important messages. The first says, “You must pay attention to me.” The second says, “You must pick that up.”
If you believe that your dog must understand that retrieving is required, and you trust that I can show you how to teach him that in a systematic and careful manner, there are two ways that I can help you. I have an article that explains how to teach a dog a correction for failing to retrieve, I will be happy to send it to you upon your request.
I also have a Digital Obedience Guide: Teaching the Retrieve, that is a combination of text and video that shows you step-by-step, exactly how I do it.
I want your dog to love retrieving; after all, much of obedience depends on his enjoyment of the retrieve exercises. However, I also want him to understand that there are rules about how to retrieve. If you are interested in shaping the retrieve, and then requiring the retrieve, or if your retrieve needs to be more reliable, I hope you will let me help.
Making Obedience More Fun
Why We Use Reward Markers
For someone that has been competing and teaching obedience for as many decades as I have, “making obedience fun” has been an ongoing process, a transformation over time.
As a child, dog training was nothing more than jerking on a dog’s collar for every mistake, and it was not fun--, for human or dog. Discovering that dogs could learn by being shown how to do things, without correction, made training more fun.
The next transition occurred with the use of food and toys to make obedience fun. However, we talked of playing and working as two separate activities. We played with the dog before, during, or after each training session. That made training more fun, but it was still not enough.
Training became truly fun when I learned how to effectively use a reward marker.
A “reward marker” is a sound or word that predicts for the dog that reward is coming. He connects the reward with his behavior. The reward can be food, a toy, or game. Reward markers are also known as “conditioned secondary reinforcers.”
THREE REASONS FOR USING REWARD MARKERS
- When a reward marker is used correctly, play and work cease to be separate activities. The dog performs to gain access to reward.
In 1895, Bernard Waters wrote a book titled, “Fetch & Carry: A Treatise on Retrieving.” He wrote, “Much of what we ask dogs to do in training is mere drudgery, but the dog will expend endless energy in the pursuit of game. His best work comes when we so seamlessly blend the two together that he cannot tell where one starts and the other ends.”
When I read this, I picture Mr. Waters watching his dog, quivering with excitement to retrieve, and understanding that if he could communicate that a retrieve would follow a successful sit-stay, his dogs would eagerly sit. Obedience would not be drudgery, but a path to pursuing game.
What is the most meaningful reward for your dog? Perhaps you have several, such as a variety of treats, throwing a ball, or playing tug-of-war. Any of these things can occur following a reward marker. Imagine, as Mr. Waters predicted, that your dog will eagerly and happily do anything you ask if he believes that he is pursuing reward.
- Youcan clearly communicate to your dog exactly what he must do to cause the reward to happen when you use a reward marker to “mark and pay” a specific behavior.
One of the first behaviors that I pair with a reward marker is sending a dog to a place or crate. One night I was teaching this to room full of advanced beginners. We were using reward markers to indicate the moment that the dog put his fourth foot on the bed. One student complained that her dog never wanted to get on her bed.
“Just try it,” I told her, while I worked with other students. Five minutes later, she yelled across the room “She likes it!” Indeed, with each repetition, her dog was jumping on to the bed with more enthusiasm, and whirling around when she heard the verbal marker, “YES.” The dog understood exactly what behavior was being asked of her, and with each repetition was getting faster and more animated.
- If we consistently connect behavior to reward with a marker, the behavior itself becomes rewarding.
Are you doubtful? Then how do you explain another evening, when a student was using a reward marker and throwing a ball for his dog when he got on the bed. After five or six repetitions, his dog chased the ball, and took it back to the bed. If going to the bed had not become rewarding, why would he run to the bed when he already had the ball? He did it because “running to the bed” had become rewarding in and of itself because it was connected to reward.
HOW DOES THE REWARD MARKER WORK?
- When the untrained dog receives a reward, a dopamine flood occurs in the memory and pleasure centers of the brain.
- Once conditioned to a reward marker, the dopamine flood occurs when the dog hears the marker, well before he receives the reward.
- The reward marker “connects” the reward with whatever the dog is doing when he hears the marker. Connected this way often enough, any behavior becomes rewarding.
We compete in a sport where it is difficult to keep dogs motivated to perform with intensity and enthusiasm. Our mistake is believing that our dogs are only performing because we have a treat or will give them a treat. If we “spit food,” or “offer a treat,” in the absence of a marker, this may be true. However, if we use a reward marker, correctly and consistently to mark the correct behavior, our dogs will come to find the behavior itself rewarding. – even in the
absence of a marker. It’s true! You can teach your dog to enjoy even the most important but
mundane tasks such as fronts, finishes and pivots.
I would like to give you the following challenge. Video your training session and practice using your reward marker.
- First, watch how your dog reacts to your reward marker. If conditioned correctly, upon hearing the marker, your dog should have a strong positive response; ears up, fully attentive, indicating that for him, the sound or word is connected to reward.
When you review your video, watch for these common mistakes:
- When you use your verbal reward marker, you should not say anything else before
delivering the reward. For example, when your dog sits in front of you, and
you “mark” it, by saying “yes,” (or whatever verbal marker you have chosen)
and deliver reward. You should not pair it with, “yes, good boy, or “yes, that was better! You want to be consistent and build value in your reward marker – “Yes!”
The same is true when using a clicker. Do not offer verbal praise before you click or, after you click and before the reward.
- Do not reach for your food or toy reward until after giving your reward marker. Watch your video to determine whether your dog hears your verbal marker before he sees you reach for the reward. If you reach too soon, your dog will start watching your hands and instead of connecting his behavior with reward, he will connect your behavior (reaching into your pocket) with reward.
REWARD MARKERS: MYSTERY AND CERTAINTY
Should you use your reward marker every time and with every command that you teach?
Concentrate on skills that are not inherently rewarding for your dog such as sit, down, front, finish, come and pivot. It is not as important for you to use a marker when your dog is doing something that he already enjoys like jumping or retrieving.
However, before you can be ready to compete in the obedience ring, you must add an element of mystery and certainty to your training.
Certainty means your dog knows exactly what he did that made reward happen. You can effectively mark and pay him for a behavior near you, such as sitting in heel position with attention. With equal clarity, you can communicate when he is performing something perfectly at a greater distance from you such as going down on a signal in Utility. Your dog can be certain that he understands what he does that causes reward to occur.
Mystery refers to random use of a reward marker. Once your dog is certain of what he does that causes reward to occur, you become unpredictable and stop rewarding every repetition. Now your dog is unsure which behavior you are going to pay, or which repetition of that behavior that you are going to reward, but remains certain that what he does will cause reward to occur and therefore keeps working hard in pursuit of reward.
Consider the following example:
You have used a reward marker for the following behaviors;
Sitting in heel position with attention, a straight front and a finish to heel position.
On the first scent article, you are standing with your back to the pile. Your dog is sitting in heel position, paying attention as you prepare to take an article. Before you step away to get the article, you mark and pay him for sitting with attention. Then you go get an article, scent it, hand it to a helper to place in the pile, and send him. When he returns with the correct article and sits in front, you mark and pay the front.
On the second article, your dog is sitting in heel position, paying attention as you prepare to take an article. Instead of marking that behavior, you tell him to stay and pick up an article. However, after scenting the article, and handing it to your helper, you mark and pay him for paying attention to you as your helper places the article in the pile. Then you send him. When he returns with the correct article and sits in front, you take the article and have him finish. You mark and pay his finish.
Your dog is certain what behaviors you will mark and pay. However, because you are unpredictable, your dog is never sure which behavior or which repetition will produce reward. That mystery causes his effort and speed to increase as he pursues reward.
On November 15th, 2018, my husband, Pat Nolan, and I did a webinar discussing reward markers and how we use them in training. A video of this webinar, Reward Markers: Connecting Obedience with the Pursuit of Reward is available for purchase.Getting Started Videos
Starting over with a New Obedience Dog?
The following web page has 14 videos to help get you started.
Luring & Rewarding
Introducing Conditioned Reinforcers
Encouraging the Retrieve
Using Targets (Part I & II)
Circling the Cone
Introducing Backing Up
Using a Toy as a Distraction and a Reward
Come Dragging a Long Line
Heeling Part I
Come without a Leash
Jumping Part I
Attention is Required
The following web page has three videos to help you continue your training.
Heeling Part II
Introducing the Dumbbell
Introducing Directed Jumping
The following web page has a video that demonstrates a practice training session
Advanced Classes start Tuesday, May 14, 2019
The Advanced Classes will be conducted in 8 week terms
The class fee is $160 – Multi-dog discount $150.00/class
Heel, Jump, Retrieve/Beginning Novice
Tuesday @ 6 pm
For dogs preparing for Novice and learning to jump and retrieve. The dogs will perfect their retrieving and directed jumping skills.
Tuesday @ 11:00 am
For dogs that are heeling, jumping and retrieving. This class will practice the skills needed to compete in Novice and Open obedience classes.
Tuesday @ 12:00 pm
Tuesday @7:00 pm
This class is designed for dogs that are perfecting the Open exercises and learning the Utility exercises.
Utility and Beyond
Tuesday @ 1:00 pm
Tuesday @ 8:00 pm
This class is for dogs that are concentrating on perfecting their skills for the Utility class and/or dogs that are competing in both Open & Utility.
The class fee is $120 for 6 weeks
Beginner class focuses on developing a solid foundation in obstacle performance as well as introducing basic handling concepts. Beginner classes are Tuesdays at 7:00 PM.
The intermediate level class does longer sequencing and gains exposure to various elements of agility courses. Intermediate class meets on Wednesdays at 7:00 PM.
Advanced students are preparing to trial and solving problems specific to their individual needs. Advanced class is offered on Wednesdays at 8:00 AM. Each dog/handler team is treated as an individual and students advance at their own pace.
Please Note! It’s Not too Late to Join the May Rally Classes!
The class fee is $100 for 5 weeks
Wednesday @ 6 pm
Dog focus will be continued work on heeling with attention, pace changes, halts, turns, sit, down, fronts, finishes, come and stay. Handler focus will include learning more advanced Rally signs and starting to develop off lead work.
Wednesday @ 7 pm
Dog focus will be continued work on heeling with attention, pivots, off leash control, stands, backing up, signal and cue discrimination. Handler work will include the more advanced Rally signs and more advanced skills such as side by side circles, spins, and backing with a pivot.
For additional information contact:
Marty & Janinie Fiorito
New Title Winners
New Title Winners: March & April 2019
Utility Dog Excellent
Companion Dog Excellent
Novice Jumpers with Weaves
Tom Harvey & Zeke (Golden)
Open Jumpers with Weaves
Roxanne Spilman-Bush & EC (English Cocker)
Betty Ann Lewandowski & Billy (Papillion) Grand Champion
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