What You Reinforce is What You Get

A tan dog with black muzzle is looking out from between two wooden steps. Her mouth is open and she looks very happy. Next to her on the step is a beaten up yellow tennis ball.
Clara and her ball

Bob Bailey said, “What you click is what you get.” There is a lot of wisdom in this simple remark. Among other things, it emphasizes to me that we don’t always realize exactly what we are marking and reinforcing, but the animal always does. Or rather, the animal’s actions reflect it.

Since I rarely use a clicker, my version is, “What you reinforce is what you get.” This is still a challenge to keep in mind sometimes. I tend to fail at holding my criteria steady, and it shows in the overly wide range of behaviors I tend to get from my dogs. Plus, putting something on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (reinforcing it inconsistently) makes the behavior really persistent. Not a good idea to do that to a behavior you are trying to get rid of!

So let’s see what that all this looks like. I’m going to share with you all one of my bumbles. I have a video where I can show first what I reinforced purposefully (and successfully). Then I show the dog doing what I subsequently reinforced carelessly. It happened to be very close to the behavior I had been trying to fix in the first place. My dog shaped us almost back to where we started!

I wrote in my crossover story that a turning point for me was when I learned that an animal’s behavior is a map of what has been reinforced. (Punished too, now that I think of it.) You can see the changing landscape in the movie.

Letting Go of the Ball

Clara is my first truly ball crazy dog. I love it. It’s so fun to see that pure passion; how completely thrilled she is about playing ball. She loves it so much, actually, that she has a rather hard time giving it back, even though she lives for me to throw it. She loves both chasing a ball and having a ball.

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.
Clara practicing “put it in the bowl”

I published a movie last year, Retrieving to a Container, about how I solved her problem of reluctant releases. I did this with the help of my trainer friend and also a great YouTube tutorial. I trained Clara to fetch the ball and drop it in a container instead of putting it in my hand, which was so very hard for her. (She will fetch just about anything else in the world to hand, from paperclips to poop,  just not a ball. With the ball, she approaches since she really does want me to throw, but then she usually does that head dodge thing when I reach out. Just c a a n ‘ t quite give it up.)

I could have stopped everything and worked hard and gotten a ball fetch to hand, but the container thing was an elegant solution that would also build us a new foundation behavior. And it removed most of Clara’s conflict about releasing the ball.

I tried teaching my other dogs as well, and Zani took to it right away. So now I had two of them who would drop things into a container.

Zani has a knack for getting in on the fun, wherever it is. So when I would get out the rubber balls and the container, she started barging in on Clara’s game. Clara is good natured about things like that, and I’m a sucker, so now there were three of us. Zani started to pick up the ball if Clara dropped it short of the bucket. Zani would grab it, drop it in the bucket, and I would give her a treat. (Told you I’m a sucker. She even got me to feed her.)

Experienced trainers are smiling now. With Zani’s help, I exactly undid the behavior I had trained. Clara and I play with two balls, so I can throw the second immediately when she delivers the first. The throw of the ball reinforces the previous behavior. So when she started dropping the ball short of the bucket and letting Zani finish the job, she still got reinforced by another throw. It didn’t matter that I was waiting for the ball to hit the bucket, since she wasn’t performing that part of the sequence. So she reverted to her natural behavior of tossing the ball down in anticipation when she got within a few feet of me.

How Eileen’s Behavior Got Shaped

So what about me? Did Clara cause my behavior to change through reinforcement? Yes. Her actions were shaping my behavior. She got me to do two different things. First, when I was holding the container, if she dropped the ball a time or two I got in the habit of reaching out with the container before she let go. I was doing the natural human thing of “catching” the ball with the bowl, rather than being a statue. I got reinforced for doing that since it saved the time of either of us messing around trying to pick it up off the ground. So in this way I also started taking over some of what “should” have been her job, and she got reinforced (again!) for not coming quite all the way to the container. By inches this time, but it only takes that much to miss.

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.
Take a look at my right hand

Second, she also shaped me to put the second ball out of sight when she approached. Again, she’s so ball crazy that she had a very hard time taking her eyes off the ball I was about to throw long enough to put her own ball in the container. I could have started working on her self control around balls, but instead I  fell into the short cut of putting the other ball out of sight when she approached. This improved her accuracy at the container.

Where to Go From Here

All this makes me sound incredibly sloppy, but I’m going to defend myself a little. First of all, this is recreation. There are some things I put lots of energy into getting just right. Zen. Recalls. Mat work. I am even decent at being moderately precise, as in competitive obedience and Rally. So I cut myself a little slack when we are talking about something that is not life and death important. (Clara disagrees about that assessment, grin.)

Second, with multiple dogs you tend to make little compromise decisions all the time. It was a big plus in my mind that I could play with Clara and Zani at the same time, bizarre as the game was. My bottom line was for them to have a good time and me to be able to not work very hard.

However, the problem with being sloppy in any training situation is that one is changing criteria on the dog.

Changing criteria is unfair without using  clear cues for the different behaviors expected. That’s what cues are for. In this situation, with a different dog from Clara, my behavior might have been more of a problem. Clara is resilient and adaptable, especially when there is a ball involved. When I firmed up my criteria it took her less than a minute to switch from dropping the ball a few feet from me back into taking some care to drop it into the bucket. But it did take a little extinction burst. I try not to get in the habit of creating those!

So in the course of filming and writing about this, I have decided how to fix this situation in a way that hopefully will be more fair to Clara than the current mishmash, and still let Zani participate. I’ve realized Clara is very close to understanding the two different criteria for when Zani is there and when she isn’t.  I can do something to make it even more clear which criterion we are using. I’ll go back to sitting down when I play with her by herself. I think that change, plus Zani’s absence, would make for pretty clear situational cues that it she is in charge of getting the ball into the container.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Also, my friend Marge has challenged me to address self control for Clara around balls. So stay tuned. Finally, for extra credit: why is Zani hanging around me so close when she is part of the game?

And how about you? Have your dogs shaped your behavior? Have you noticed anything amusing that you have been reinforcing? Or noticed slippage into a different behavior as you relax criteria?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright © Eileen Anderson 2015


17 thoughts on “What You Reinforce is What You Get

  1. I am ALWAYS doing that- unteaching what I’ve taken pains to teach !!!! AND my mistakes are hundreds of times worse than yours ! I must make a video! You are inspiring me, and making me laugh ! jan

    1. I wish you would make a video! Really I don’t believe you that they are hundreds of times worse. I did three different things wrong in this training! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for posting!

  2. Hahaha, I am the QUEEN of changing criteria, it’s something I work on every day, because my girl Shelby is not so resilient and it frustrates her to no end. I’m also rather good at being sloppy and allowing superstitious behavior to occur *sigh*. Like you, I have my behaviors with my dogs that I want precise and I work hard on being very clear but some things I just kinda let it slide. Shelby, for example, when I was teaching her not to jump up on the door (after she’d self-reinforced by opening the screen a few times), she would jump up on the handle and then sit down and wait. I reinforced that by letting her out. After a few dozen repetitions, she now jumps up on the door every single time and then sits. I’ve since learned to keep the screen door locked, so it’s really no harm no foul. Shelby just thinks that it’s jump up, sit, go out, instead of sit, go out, and you know, I’m kinda okay with that, lol. We get the job done, at the end of the day 😉

  3. >>(She will fetch just about anything else in the world to hand, from paperclips to poop, just not a ball. With the ball, she approaches since she really does want me to throw, but then she usually does that head dodge thing when I reach out. Just c a a n ‘ t quite give it up.)<<

    Yes, yes! This is the same as Barnum (as you knows since we have emailed about it) with the exception that he is not able to pick up paperclips because of his overbite and I have never tried to ask him to pick up poop, which I think he would have an aversion to but would be trainable.

    This was such great timing for me because, as I told you, now that it does not hurt for Barnum to carry balls in his mouth anymore, he is now a ball fanatic again. But also it has been one of my training goals to train him to carry a bag with the dirty dishes from my room to a padded box in the kitchen for my assistants to retrieve them from. I've had a surprising amount of trouble training that because he's so used to retrieving to hand. The YouTube video was very helpful for the first few steps, but I discovered a lump in the middle which I thought I would share here in case other people have the same issue:

    Once Barnum got the idea that he was supposed to pick up the object in the box (which he did almost immediately) he would then try to put it into my hand and if I didn't take it he would just stand there holding it. Eventually he would drop it and I would click that, which resulted in me shaping him to pick the item up and fling it or drop it randomly, which was not my goal!

    I went away and thought about it and decided to try to click/mark the second he picked up the object, before he had time to move away from the box or toward me. It proved too difficult because he moved too fast. The solution that I think is working now is that I picked up the box and put it between my knees, where my lap would normally be. This supports the familiar motion for him of picking the thing up and moving toward me. And he's learned to just release it now without waiting for my release cue. (That will probably bite me in the ass when we go back to normal retrieving!) Then I started to slowly lower the box so that it's resting on my foot rests between my feet. I ended there for today with success. And I am hoping that he will get the concept of continuing to follow the box and not try to come back to me as I slowly move it out of my personal space.

    1. Sharon, I must admit I haven’t exactly tried it, but I’m pretty sure Clara would retrieve poop. She will willingly give me any other contraband she picks up, sigh. And last night it really was a paper clip. I’m just glad I heard her clicking it around in her mouth.

      That sounds like a good solution to the hand vs box problem. I could see where this method would be challenging for a dog that already had a well trained retrieve. I don’t know if you caught it, but the woman who made the video uses this as the basis of all her retrieve training. Interesting!

      One of these days I’m going to put the box into the dryer and let Clara start transferring laundry. She LOVES laundry.

      I still think we should have a Ball Zen Project.

      Thanks for writing! I’m glad the video came at a good time.

  4. My cat used to wait in a certain area while I was getting his food. I had come home from a trip and noticed that my cat no longer waited where I wanted him too. He sat much closer to me as I prepared his meal. Turns out my husband’s criteria for “wait” was different than mine. That’s how my cat unlearned my “wait”.

    I’m taking the Bailey-Farhoody Criteria chicken workshop this week so your post is very timely, thanks!

    Jackie Moyano

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