“I use positive reinforcement. Therefore, River consents every time we work. Every. Single. Time.” That was my comment to a friend’s Facebook post. It doesn’t particularly matter what the original post was about. My response, however, is about consent and dog training. River is my 2-year-old spaniel mix. She’s a wonderful, joyful dog. Ironically, I have always referred to our training sessions as work. Most days, they are anything but work. We have a blast. But she can always opt out. How?
Let me geek out for a moment to talk about using positive reinforcement to train a behavior. A behavior is any action that your dog performs: sit, down, bow, shake. To reinforce a behavior is to increase the chance that your dog does it again. With positive reinforcement, you add or provide something, presumably that your dog likes, to increase the chance. FYI: The “positive” part of positive reinforcement refers to the “adding” not to the goodness of the thing that’s added. However, in this case, you do want something good. Otherwise, you’re not likely to increase the chance your dog does it again.
In practice, how does this work? Suppose you’re teaching your dog to sit. Short version: when your dog sits, you provide a reward. The reward is the positive part. It’s the thing you’ve added. Suppose the reward is your dog’s favorite food: roast chicken. Well, if sitting earned her roast chicken before, maybe it will work again. So your dog sits again. I’m leaving out some details that make this work even better, such as timing and markers, but that’s the jist of it. By choosing to sit in exchange for roast chicken, your dog has consented to training.
However, your dog can always choose not to sit. Then what happens? Nothing. No reward. But no punishment either. Keep in mind that there are many reasons your dog might not do whatever behavior you’re training. Your dog may decide that, at that moment, the reward you’re offering is not more rewarding that the warm bed she’s sleeping in. Or your dog could be tired, sick, or injured. Of course, there’s always the possibility that your dog just doesn’t understand what behavior your want her to perform. In that case, you’ll need to back up a few steps in your training. Could you motivate your dog with something better than roast chicken? Maybe. Higher value rewards are often needed when training in more distracting environments, for example.
How Does River Consent?
So, when I say that River consents every time we work, I mean that she always has the choice to perform the behavior or not. The consequence when she performs the behavior is a food treat. When she doesn’t, I simply withhold the treat.
How do I know when River doesn’t want to train at that moment, rather than just being confused by what I’m asking her to do? I can often tell by her body language. However, what if you’re not very skilled with body language yet? Let’s make the message more clear. Truth be told, I stumbled into this quite by accident. Or maybe River taught me how to do this. I’ll let you be the judge.
Play bow was one of the first tricks that I taught River. Our cue is “ta-da.” I bow to her after saying “ta-da,” and she does a play bow. It’s super cute. So, I started doing it at the end of each of our training sessions. This became my way of telling River that we’re done training for now. One day she offered the play bow before I had planned. I started to laugh but then stopped. River was telling me something. Despite the fact that we were working on a completely different trick, one that she had performed a few times already, she was offering the play bow. River was telling me that she was done. Message received. Session over. No questions asked.
I encourage you to consider your dog’s desire to train at any given time. It might be the only time you have available that day, but that doesn’t mean your dog is ready. You and your dog won’t get anything but frustrated if you’re not both engaged in the process. Also, think about teaching your dog a way to clearly end a session. And allow your dog to deliver that message at any point, even at the beginning of a training session. The communication and trust that you build is worth much more than anything you would have gained by continuing that training session.