How to Become a Dog Trainer: Criteria & Rate of Reinforcement

I recently wrote a blog on Dog Obedience Training – Four Key Elements, which discusses one of the most basic principles anyone who wants to know how to become a dog trainer must know. However, within those four elements, there are two that are most often misunderstood by professional dog trainers – criteria and rate of reinforcement.

To learn what each of the four elements are, check out the blog Dog Obedience Training – Four Key Elements. In this blog post, I’m going to relay some of my experiences in observing many many trainers. Most of the old-timers understand these concepts, but even they get stuck on criteria once in a while. For newer trainers, I’d say criteria is the biggest single problem they have.

So, some real-life situations and what I see as the problem:

Scenario: A professional dog trainer has been working with a German Shepherd Dog for several months. He’s a one-year-old rescue and the trainer did well on most of his issues, but he barks when he’s in the car with his owners. For about a month the trainer and her partner drove around with the dog in the car. However, he rarely barked when in the car with them, but barks incessantly when in the car with his owners.

Assessment: There are specific triggers (the owners), so a thorough history might help – when did it start, where were they going, etc. But ultimately, that’s just background info, and we still need to set achievable criteria. There are a couple of ways to approach this, but they are both criteria-based solutions (as all solutions in the process of discovering how to become a dog trainer are).

Solution one – it’s highly unlikely he’s really barking non-stop for a long distance. So, they need to set a criteria of no-barking for . . . maybe 1 second, and reinforce every time he stops barking for 1 second. Once you’ve achieved your desired rate of reinforcement (ROR) (maybe 10 reinforcements in 1 minute), raise the criteria to no barking for 2 seconds. Etc. Gradually increase the time between reinforcements, adjusting your desired ROR as you go.

Solution two – under safe conditions, put the dog in the car alone and move away (perhaps out of sight). Wait for the dog to stop barking, then start walking toward the car. If the dog starts barking, go back to where you were. Eventually, the dog will learn that when he barks, you go away, and he will stop barking. This is less desirable than solution one because it’s negative reinforcement, but it can be very effective.

Scenario: A woman has a dog that chases and bites her tail when the woman and her boyfriend are present. The dog is uninterested in redirection, toys, etc. Clapping and walking away works; however the woman has times where that’s not convenient.

Assessment: Again, there are specific triggers, so that actually makes it easier to work with the dog. There’s probably a level of excitement or perhaps stress for the dog in this particular situation.

Management – unfortunately for the owner (and the consulting trainer), learning doesn’t necessarily take place only when it’s convenient, so we need to deal with the times it does not happen. This is called “management.” Because the triggers are specific (the woman and her boyfriend together), when they aren’t able to train, they can make sure the three of them aren’t together at those times. Put the dog in another room or a crate, have the boyfriend go out and run an errand or just sit in the car with a good book, etc.

Solution – there are several things that need to be done, but from a criteria standpoint, the woman needs to do set ups with the boyfriend and the dog, measuring the intensity and the rate of tail chasing/biting. She also needs to assess various situations: For instance, is the behavior stronger when she and her boyfriend are right next to each other (vs. him being in another room or 10 feet away); can she use a recording of his voice and get the behavior, and if so, is the behavior the same or weaker? All these things will help give them a starting point. We already know that clapping works, so if she precedes the clap with a cue, eventually she’ll be able to cue the dog to stop with a word.

Caveat – this could be an obsessive-compulsive behavior, so may require the intervention of a vet behaviorist.

So, there are a couple of scenarios where criteria is not being used to maximum effect in the process of learning how to become a dog trainer. These scenarios make me wish I’d taken some dog training videos of some of my clients to show you!

I feel so strongly about criteria and rate of reinforcement that I’m doing a webinar on that exact topic! You can access more information on this topic by attending the upcoming webinar, Criteria and Rate of Reinforcement: The most misunderstood piece of the puzzle.

For more information on this course, go to Criteria & Rate of Reinforcement: The most misunderstood piece of the puzzle. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

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