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May 4, 2014: Dog and Pony Show: The Importance of Big Reinforcers

I tend to use positive reinforcement techniques when working with my animals. I say work with rather than train because train denotes a false hierarchy with the person being at the top. Two examples follow:

Today we took Ryder to search and rescue dog training. The training site was a long ways away, at the end of Settler’s Bay Road. It was a beautiful day, with beautiful weather. Some complained that it was too warm. (Give me a break, temperatures were in the sixties). I thought that temperatures were just right. It was also near windless, I thought, making it difficult for the dogs to pick up scents.

Ryder playing tug with Patty

Ryder was the first up – she did four runs total, three with Patty Howell being her subject, and one with Pete being her subject. Ryder (today) was a little bit lackadaisical on the first three outings. She found Patty, but stopped a few times to sniff and root around in the now thawed ground. Patty, who is rather low key, gave her treats and played with her some. Pete, who on the fourth go around, was (as instructed) very upbeat – I let Ryder go off lead and she bounded over to him, and promptly began tugging vigorously on her come along strap.

So, Ryder was rewarded for her efforts. But on the walk back to base, I got to thinking and thus saw the situation from Ryder’s perspective. It was a beautiful day, and she most wanted to go for a hike and meander around, and root around in rabbit poop. And here was goal-driven me, forcing her to do something she was not up for doing.

Maybe, just maybe, what we all ought to have done was to spontaneously give the dogs a day off from school – say go for a hike, with the dogs that could be off lead, or head on down to the creek and let them cool off, or, gone for a picnic, and just all relaxed while our dogs hung out. Just something different. My take on the matter was that the very appreciative dogs would have done even better the next time around.

I didn’t mention this because I knew this idea would be greeted with blank looks. However, I am going to keep this in mind – maybe taking Ryder for brief walks before or after search and rescue training. And, most importantly, I am going to continue to take her for daily hikes because I know that this is what she most enjoys doing. The treats and the tugs are small reinforcers, and the hikes are big reinforcers.

The exact same concept holds true for horses. Later, back on the home front, Pete and I took all four horses on a late afternoon outing. Pete rode Lifre and ponied Hrimmi. And I rode Tinni and ponied Raudi. It was the first time we’d taken this particular group of four out together. It was a short outing, but all the horses did well, and quite clearly, enjoyed themselves. Hrimmi now ponies well.

I gave her a treat when we got to the trailhead, and at the conclusion of the ride. In between, she got to be off lead when we rode the other horses and ponied Raudi. She raced around – her dark chestnut and bright white coat was in contrast with the brush and emerging spring foliage.

Yes, so there are similarities here. Ryder and Hrimmi both have a job to do. Ryder will in time be a search and rescue dog, and Hrimmi in time will be a riding horse. Both are young, so they need to and enjoy being out and about. Like Ryder, Hrimmi did her job well (which was to be ponied). This was why she got the smaller reinforcer. But at the same time, she also got a larger reinforcer, which was the freedom to roam about for a bit.

And so, once again, a great day was had by all.

Next: 124. 5/5/14: Hrimmi’s Second Birthday