Dog Training Using Behavior Capture

The easiest way to train dogs and puppies

Posted Nov 26, 2015

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Getting a new puppy seems to provide a glimpse at immortality. You get to start over with a new dog, a blank slate, a mind to shape, and a whole new life to live. This is the feeling that I have had since the arrival of my new puppy, Ranger, who is a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. The arrival of a new pup also gives you a chance to review the ways to best train a dog. One certainly does not want to start training a nine or 10-week-old puppy using any form of compulsion or negative stimulation since this is also the period that you are forming your emotional bond with your dog.

The way that I start training my puppies involves something I call autotraining (because the dog seems to be training himself) but is more technically called behavior capture. In theory this technique is incredibly simple — you merely wait until the dog spontaneously performs the behavior that you want to place under command control and then you label and reward it. In the case of Ranger's training I simply watch the puppy's activities carefully waiting for particular behaviors to occur which I can verbally mark and reward. So if the puppy is starting to lie down I say "Ranger down" and when he is down I give him a treat or a pat.

Obviously one drawback to behavior capture is that it might take a bit of time before you actually get the behavior that you want. However once the pup knows that there is a reward waiting if he engages in some kind of behavior he treats the experience as a pleasant game and may try different behaviors to see if they trigger a reward. It may take him a few "guesses" to deduce which behaviors produce the reward and which don't. Along the way the dog will make many mistakes, however I never let this distress me. Although we normally focus on the importance of getting the behavior we want and then rewarding it so that it becomes stronger, the second aspect of operant learning is that unrewarded actions tend to grow weaker, which is equally valuable. Think of it this way, the more errors that the pup makes the more that he learns about what is not rewarding. Ultimately the dog will eliminate the unprofitable options and start repeating the actions that are rewarded. Dogs seem to enjoy this process and treat it as a game.

The method is so simple that I usually get my grandchildren to become "trainers". I give them a small container of Cheerios or some other breakfast cereal (since I know that the kids are going to nibble on the "dog treats" as well) and tell them, "Today we're going to catch Ranger sitting. Whenever you see Ranger starting to sit tell him 'Ranger sit' and then give him a treat."

A major difficulty with behavior capture training has to do with timing the reward. Suppose that Ranger is coming toward me and I say "Ranger come". I next have to rush out to give him a treat. My sudden movement may stop his approach, or he may even halt to wait for the treat to arrive near his mouth. Notice that this means that the reward has actually interfered with, or stopped the behavior that I was interested in getting him to perform. What we need then is a reward that doesn't stop the behavior, which can be precisely delivered to coincide with the behavior that we want to strengthen, and which also can be delivered from a distance.

The creation of such a special reward turns out to be easy and straightforward, and for those of you who are technically oriented it is based on the same kind of classical conditioning which is responsible for learning certain emotional responses to particular situations. The idea is that the reward will actually be a signal that makes the dog feel good and will not interfere with the ongoing behaviors. It is the positive emotion associated with a reward that really strengthens the behavior that came before it.

To create a new reward you must first decide what kind of signal you want to be rewarding. Over the past few years a clicking noise has become popular, but the signal can be nearly anything. I prefer using my voice since that leaves both of my hands free for other things, and my signal is an enthusiastic "Yes!". Next we "charge" that signal with a positive emotional value via conditioning. The easiest way to do this is by using food. I do this simply by giving my "Yes!" signal immediately before giving the dog a bit of food as a treat. Now I repeat this many times and after a few repetitions the dog will perk up its ears and wag its tail happily when he hears "Yes!". Technically we would say that we have created a secondary reward (as opposed to a primary or other unlearned reward such as food) and you may also hear this referred to as a secondary reinforcer, since it can be used to reinforce or strengthen a behavior.

Once we have created our secondary reward, the signal "Yes!" can be used to give a reward to the pup while it is performing an action that we want him to learn. Thus in my current situation, when I see Ranger coming to me I label his behavior "Ranger come" and then a moment later say "Yes!" When he gets to me he gets the actual treat and I repeat the "Yes!" signal. Some dog trainers call this conditioned sound a bridging stimulus because it serves to bridge the time gap from the instant that the dog performs the correct action to the moment when we can actually deliver the treat. These trainers often think of the secondary reward as a sort of an IOU which tells the dog that "there is a treat in the bank waiting for your arrival."

After a short while the label that you have put on the dog's behavior, in this case "Ranger come", comes to serve as a command since the dog now links it with the action he was performing in association with that sound. So now he performs the behavior when he hears the words because he knows that this results in a reward.

Behavior capture can be used to teach all of the basic commands, such as "come", "sit", "down", and "heel". However the neat thing about this method is that it is particularly useful in teaching the dog to perform activities that are difficult or impossible to enforce. For example, housebreaking is also a major issue with a puppy. In my case I walk the pup down a familiar route. As soon as the pup begins to squat to eliminate I say "Be quick", and repeat it once or twice during the elimination process while alternating with my secondary reward "Yes!" Once the action is finished the pup is rewarded with a treat. I have only had my puppy for some two weeks, and already, if I use the "Be quick" signal as a command he begins to sniff around looking for a place to eliminate.

Professional dog trainers, those who train dogs for entertainment performances such as in circuses, use behavior capture to place under control various weird and quirky behaviors which would be difficult to train otherwise. Thus, for example, if they see a dog spontaineously spinning around in circles, they will label it and reward it so that after a while they can get the dog to spin on command.

Of course there are many things which can't be taught effectively through behavior capture, however it is nice to have a simple method to begin to teach the dog the basics, and to begin to convince the puppy that training can be fun and rewarding.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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