I haven’t had a chance to blog for a while (Question of the Day: When did ‘blog’ become a verb??) but I have been dying to talk about what trainers & behaviourists call ‘secondary reinforcers’.
(I’ll try and make this comment brief because if you’re like me, this is just one of a L-O-N-G list of training and behaviour blogs you want to read today!)
When I rescued my first deaf dog, the secondary reinforcer had to be something visual instead of my normal verbal one. With deaf dogs it’s usually a hand signal such as a thumbs-up or some other obvious hand movement. To cut a long story short, after a while I noticed that my dog was starting to show less and less interest in the secondary reinforcer, and even in the primary reinforcer (in this case, food). I just couldn’t understand what was going on; my timing was good, I was being consistent. Perhaps the withdrawal into an intermittent reward schedule was too quick? So I upped the schedule and to my surprise my dog ignored me even MORE!
What the hell was going on?
Then I noticed something… My dog had stopped looking at my face. She had almost no interest in me whatsoever when there were distractions in the environment, no matter WHAT food I was offering as a reward. Another thing I noticed was that if we were playing a game without offering any rewards, she was much more engaged and animated.. The penny dropped. I had become so reliant on my thumbs-up as the secondary reinforcer I had stopped saying ‘Good Girl’.
When I had stopped saying ‘Good Girl’, I had stopped smiling.
My deaf dog was denied a smile when I was rewarding her with food, simply because I'd fallen out of the habit.
Within a couple of days of reintroducing the bright and shiny ‘Good Girl!’ with a bright and shiny smile, she was as keen as mustard again.
I thought this was just a deaf dog problem… Oh if only.
Over the years since I’ve been watching the development of positive reinforcement training with joy; just so thankful that we have evolved beyond pain and coercion to shape behaviours (well, some of us anyway…)
Gradually I started picking out a pattern where secondary reinforcers such as clickers and verbal markers were not always motivating the dog; in fact with some dogs it looked as if they were thoroughly fed up of them.
Then I spotted it; or rather couldn’t spot it… It hit me like a waft of wiffy kippers!
Where was the EMOTION? Where was the smiling eye contact? The bright shiny voice? The physical animation from the handler?!
The clicker / verbal marker / hand signal had somehow suppressed the emotional response from the handler!! Suddenly I was seeing this all over the place – dogs switching off because their handlers had become emotional vacuums when in ‘training mode’. The trainers were on automatic pilot and weren’t even aware that their faces, voices and bodies had become devoid of emotion and more importantly, joy.
It made so much sense to me; we expect our dogs to be happy to work with us, to show enjoyment, to have wagging tails when we’re training, especially now we’re on the positive reinforcement train (yes, pun intended), but where was OUR joy? But how on earth were our dogs supposed to be joyful when their role models (us) had become as emotional as your average yard broom??!
So I’ve been testing this theory, ‘geeing’ up handlers that haven’t even noticed that their faces, voices and bodies have become emotionless, making them skip, jump, hop, smile, laugh as well as give their normal markers. I’ve been working on them injecting the joy back into their training and BOY is it making a difference!! We’ve got dogs GALLOPING back to their skipping owners! We’ve got owners finding the children in themselves again and rediscovering the JOY in being with their dogs! It’s simply awe-inspiring to see the happiness flooding back into people’s faces, voices and body language and this being mirrored in the responses of their dogs.
So, I’m hoping the take-home message here is that the best secondary reinforcer of all is Joy. Don’t let a clicker or a ‘Good Dog’ ever replace it.