How to Train a Dog Using Operant Conditioning

High-Level Fetch Training!

I can't train Maui with Matty right now because her owner is out doing what preschool teachers do, so I have a chance to train Maui solo and further my little "Fetch" project. Thanks to shaping, I managed to teach Maui to get a shoe from the ground and place it on my hand. I wouldn't have known where to start training him if not for shaping. 

I would have taught Maui first to grab the shoe, then somehow teach him to grab it on the floor, then somehow teach him to grab the shoe and place it on my hand. This training technique might work, but it would have taken me weeks to teach every single step instead of just a week total, and it's Maui doing most of the figuring out. If I master this, teaching Maui virtually any trick is going to be significantly more efficient. Not easier, but definitely faster. 

What I'm not sure of, is how to reinforce it, or even if I should reinforce something like this. Reinforcement of obedience commands is definitely a must as telling Maui to stop before he runs to a busy highway will save his life, but should I reinforce retrieving stuff? If I was a hunter and I needed a duck retrieved, perhaps I need it reinforced, but what if I need him to retrieve his leash or other important things? 

I decided to continue with the shock collar reinforcement because it would be a waste after all this effort, and am I sure it will be helpful on a regular basis, especially when I start teaching Maui to get specific things. 

For now, I'll stick with the shoe until Maui can retrieve the shoe from a different room. After that, I'll teach him to differentiate between two objects. Then I'll start introducing the powerful combo of positive and negative reinforcement so I can etch the command into Maui's head. 

With a new batch of dog biscuits and the clicker now softening enough that it doesn't hurt my thumb, my training tools are ready. This time, I placed the shoe a few feet from me and said "Get!" while pointing in the shoe's direction. Maui doesn't do it. I told the verbal command again with a chirpier tone to get his spirits up, but instead, he groaned at me as if complaining that he doesn't know what I'm trying to say. 

Why is that with shaping, it's three steps forward and two steps back? I did what I thought was the fastest idea and held the shoe again. Maui did hold it, then as soon as he did, I rewarded it and let the shoe on the ground again, but close to me. I had to say it three times before Maui finally remembered but failed to place it on my hand. I had to reward him at least for remembering. 

Eventually, Maui managed to take the shoe from the ground and place it in my hand. Finally, we can resume training. If Maui is going to forget this again, I need to advance enough with the training. Now that Maui understands that putting the shoe in my hand means to treat, I can start placing the shoe farther away. The only tedious thing about it is I cannot throw the shoe, otherwise, Maui might mistake the training as a game of fetch with treats. I have to keep placing the shoe somewhere and moving away so Maui can retrieve it.  

I noticed that Maui looks at the shoe as I go away. I hope that means Maui is learning something different that helps him with this complex behavior I'm trying to teach him. I keep going farther and farther, almost an inch away each time, and I make sure to change where I place the shoe each time, so Maui can fixate on the shoe and not anything else. 

I then encountered a problem, a distance limit of sorts. When I leave the shoe more than 10 feet away from me, Maui fails to get it and just looks around. Did I discover Maui's attention range? I tried to point at the shoe but Maui isn't making the connection. I decided to stop the training session here, as Maui could be mentally fatigued. 

I then continued with a game Maui likes. For some reason, when you jump over Maui or vault over him, he quickly turns around as if he's covering his behind. I sometimes start my play with him like this. It then becomes a game where Maui will try to jump on me and I'll dodge and touch his back. It really riles him up in a good way until he ends up running around and I try to catch him as the zoomies take over. 

I end the play by catching him, pushing him down on the grass, then firmly but slowly pat and stroke his head until he calms down. I think training should always end on a good note. I want to believe that Maui looks forward to it at least, and I'm sure it reduces his cortisol levels or stress levels, especially when we do shock collar training. 

With only his behavior as my evidence, Maui doesn't seem to have any bad training experience with the shock collar. He doesn't whine, nor does he yelp. When I press on the shock collar, I only see that he rushes to do what I command him to do. Unless dogs have some kind of micro expressions that I'm not aware of, I think Maui just understands that the prickly sensation goes away when he does what was asked. I can't imagine what would have happened if I used the collar for punishment. I admit there were times when I was tempted to do so because the shock collar can quickly deliver the sensation and teach Maui that bad = shock. However, I don't want Maui to be afraid to act. He just needs to understand that certain actions earn my disapproval and verbal scolding, but never any form of physical pain.

I still recall seeing a prong collar that look deceptively like a normal collar but with a spike that pointed at the dog's throat to keep them from leading. I draw the line there. This training method is passive and causes the dog to fear pulling because the more they do, the more it will hurt.

Adding an aversive sensation after the dog did a certain behavior is called positive punishment and that's the line I'm talking about. In all my training experience, I found it more effective for Maui to follow commands in order to stop undesirable behavior than to punish him. I want Maui to obey and respect me, but I don't want him to be afraid of me, to be afraid of my proverbial wrath. 

Then again, I could be wrong with my assumption. Maui could be tolerating all of these because he recognizes me as a parent and we have a social bond. Maui could be thinking "This sucks, but human puts food in my feeding place and puts water in my drinking place. I don't have anything else." 

Sometimes I wish I could understand my dog more, but for now, I'll work with what I have and as long as he's wagging his tail before and after, he should be a relatively happy dog.

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