Thursday, December 31, 2009

Easy Cheese is a Powerful Reinforcer

Hank is a dog that I am boarding for 5 days. He has stayed with me once before several months ago. Both times he has come to visit, he has been a dog that has not wanted to come in from the yard, not wanted to go through gates, and not wanted to be picked up. Rather than manage these things, as I did during his first stay here, I decided to fix them.

My setup is such that the dogs have to come in through four doorways/gates to get out and come in from the yard. Coming back in, the order is through the dog yard gate, then the mud room door, then the kitchen door, and then the gate between the kitchen and dining room. Dogs do not have regular access to the kitchen or mudroom and only pass through the spaces on the way in and out of the yard. We make several trips in and out each day, so teaching Hank to come in and out quickly with the other dogs, was going to make my day a lot easier, especially now that it is winter!

Hank had a problem with every passage way we had to pass through, but the worst two were the dog yard gate and then the door coming into the mud room. If you tried to reach for him to guide him through either of these passage ways, he would bolt and then there was no catching him until he was ready to come in. Since I don't have all day to wait for him, I needed to fix this problem!

Since I am always letting dogs in and out in groups, and I needed to work on Hank's problem in a one-on-one setting, I just started letting all the other dogs inside but him, and waiting for him to come up to the mud room door on his own time. Yes, this took a while to start with, but once he realized there was a good reason to come in, I knew the time I had to wait for him to approach the mud room door would decrease.

The first time he came up to the mud room door on his own took about fifteen minutes. As soon as I opened the door, Hank ran down the steps and back out into the yard. I closed the door and went back inside to wait. He approached the door again within another minute or so. This time when I opened the door, he only backed down a couple of steps. I quickly squeezed a glob of easy cheese on the top step for him to lick up before he had the chance to move further away. He was confused at first (I don't think he'd ever seen easy cheese before!) but quickly realized how awesome this gooey yellow stuff was. Hank took a step closer to me and the door and I squeezed a drip of cheese into his mouth. Each step he came closer to the door was rewarded with a tiny squeeze of cheese. He was most hesitant when it came time to actually step in the mudroom. So, stepping into the mud room just barely with one foot earned him a much larger glob of cheese. As each foot stepped into the mudroom he got little bites of more cheese. The drips of cheese continued as he progressed across the mudroom, through the door between the mudroom and kitchen, and into the kitchen.

The last gate, leading from the kitchen into the dining room, was more complicated, as there were 4 dogs on the other side that also wanted cheese. We went for a different tactic once at that gate. I fed Hank cheese for staying put and allowing me to pick him up and place him down on the other side of the gate.

By the next trip out into the yard, Hank was already much better at coming back inside. I brought all the other dogs in, and then went to check on him. He was already waiting at the mudroom door. So we did the cheese routine again for coming back into the mudroom, again in the kitchen, and then for allowing me to pick him up and place him in the other room with the other dogs.

Today Hank has been coming in when the other dogs willingly. I am still rewarding him with cheese and will continue to do so intermittently during his stay here. Sometimes the reward will be right when he comes in the door, sometimes in the kitchen, and sometimes for allowing me to pick him. Sometimes the reward will be small, sometimes the reward will be large, and sometimes there will be a reward for crossing each threshold. By varying the circumstances and the value of the reward, the game of coming inside is kept interesting and fun for Hank. I am also teaching him to gamble, which will help build a response that is resistant to extinction.

Training Hank to come in on his own from the yard, took me less time than it has taking me to write this article, and I have no doubt the behavior will stick as long as I continue to intermittently reinforce it. I'm also quite confident he will remember it when he comes back for his next boarding stay as well.

Twenty minutes of training certainly has made my life easier for the next five days! And, Hank thinks I am much more interesting too, which is always a good thing. He's definitely my buddy now, and I'm sure he will be happy to come back for his next boarding stay at Canine Aspirations.

No comments: