For those of you who don’t know, I’m a bit of a word nerd.
Framing is a concept that is active in our daily communication and is a powerful tool for effective and meaningful communication. A “Frame” sets up the confines of understanding. Simply switching frames can lead to an entirely different understanding even though the situation or the topic at hand remains unchanged.
When it comes to positive dog training, the dominant understanding, the frame that we all tend to use is “Payment” or “Reward”.
Now this might not seem important to you or it might seem perfectly fine – it’s cut and dried. “So, why should I care?” Let’s take a look at a few frames and see how they differ from each other.
The Payment Frame
When we think of Reinforcement in terms of Payment there are a whole bunch of unconscious assumptions that are made. Payment is earned. Good work should be paid. Poor work should not be paid. Getting paid for doing shoddy work is not fair to the boss. Handlers feel cheated, or feel as if the dog is out partying on our dime after crappy work.
The Reward Frame
When we think of Rewarding a dog, we think of earning a prize for good work or a good deed. Rewarding half assed behavior or rewarding a decision that was not made for the appropriate reason defeats the power of the reward. Giving the reward away doesn’t do much as far as teaching a lesson.
The Reinforcement Frame
The Reinforcement Frame says that if a behavior is not happening, then not enough value has been added to the behavior. So when the behavior isn’t happening, you need to add more value to it. Value is added by either paying or rewarding the behavior when it happens or by shaping the behavior (or an incompatible behavior).
See how the Reinforcement frame is directly at odds with the Payment and Reward frames? Reward and Payment demand that a dog that is not performing well needs to do more to earn reinforcement. To pay or reward a dog for a weak or poor expression of a behavior sends the wrong message. It leads to poor performance in the future. But the Reinforcement frame says that if a behavior isn’t happening then value must be added through more Reinforcement. This conundrum plagues positive dog trainers all the time and gets in the way of rapid learning and effective training. Falling into the Reinforcement frame can be a gift.
The Reframe in Practice
I learned this lesson not too long ago with Hops. Focusing on Paying and Rewarding this little Jack Russell Terrorist for good work meant that I never get to reinforce anything. It just wasn’t working.
After banging my head up against the wall and racking my brain it hit me: his behavior didn’t need to be paid or rewarded – it couldn’t because it wasn’t happening 🙂 – it needed to be Reinforced. Once I reframed that understanding Hops started to come around and we started to make progress.
It’s important to note that I didn’t necessarily reduce my criteria for success, although my criteria did drop, nor did I work to increase my rate of reinforcement, although the CPM means cookies per minute. It is a fun expression for rate of reinforcement, a very important dog training concept. CPM should be between 15 to 30 CPM when learning or adding value to a behavior or a situation. A focus on reducing CPM should only happen after the dog perceives great value in doing the behavior the handler is... (cookies per minute) certainly did increase, I simply reframed my understanding from Paying and Rewarding to Reinforcing behavior.
To the uninitiated or those stuck in the Payment and Reward frames this looks like giving cookies away, and in many respects it is – cookies flow freely – but something near magical happens – the behavior I am looking for gets reinforced and the behaviors I am wanting not to happen don’t happen. Once the behavior that I am looking for gets enough value, the dog, as if by magic, starts to do it.
Those tough value judgements like, “He’s only doing it because of the cookie,” and those training questions, ”Was that good enough to reinforce?” disappear, and what we are left with is pure Reinforcement – value being added to the behavior(s) that we’re looking for.
Stepping out of the Payment and Reward frames and into the Reinforcement frame empowers the handler and helps the dog. The Give is a retrieve to the hand. A cued Give is a foundational skill that is not super useful in the actual performance of disc dog freestyle, and has huge applications for training and skills development . A Give is distinctly different from a Drop because of the localized nature of the skill. Give only happens in the hand,... it a try. It works.