Saturday, September 1, 2012

Food For Thought - "Rewarding Mistakes"

This morning I came upon this blog post by Ms. Denise Fenzi, a very well known +R based competitive Obedience trainer.

Rewarding Mistakes 

I was delighted by what I read in this post.  This is something that I have been doing for years, even though I know that many consider it to be taboo.

Just to be clear, I do not reinforce all mistakes at all times.  There are certainly times when it is appropriate to raise criteria and withhold reinforcement when a mistake is made.

But often, very very often, I choose to reinforce when a mistake is made, precisely for the main reason that Ms. Fenzi cites - to foster and preserve attitude.

Maddie was the first of my dogs that I reinforced in training, pretty much no matter what she did.  My instructor was actually the first to point out to me that Maddie was a dog who needed to be right no matter what.  She was so super soft that if she had perceived any disapproval on my part, she would have quit the game entirely.  Her game, of course, was Agility.  So, if Maddie missed a weave pole, she still got a treat.  If she knocked a bar, she got a treat.  If she broke a start line, she got a treat after being re-set at the line.  About the only thing I ever remember withholding reinforcement for were blown contacts, but she dearly loved contacts and nothing short of out and out punishment would have diminished her enthusiasm for them.

One might think that doing this would have made Maddie very dependent on the food rewards and would have ruined any chance of her learning to perform full courses without food on me.  It turned out that this approach transformed a very apathetic, almost reluctant, dog into an eager, nicely driven, and very solid performance partner.  Now that I am working with Tessa, who has a very natural drive to perform with me, it is even more evident that high levels of food reinforcement - even when she was wrong - created drive and love for the game for Maddie, who did not come by that naturally.

Maddie toward the end of her Agility career, loving the game, qualifying, no treats required!

This was even more important with Dean.  Ms. Fenzi referred to the "fragile dog" and Dean could be the poster dog for "Fragile Dog".

You would think, with the way he worries about being right, and how much he stresses when he feels like he is wrong, that I had really come down on him for being wrong.  Nope.  He is just like that.

Add noise phobia to that, and I am almost always reinforcing him for something.  In fact, one of the big things I have had to get used to with Tessa is that I don't need to reinforce her anywhere near as much as I need to reinforce Dean!

But after years of depositing tons of reinforcement into Dean's reinforcement bank, I am starting to see more natural attitude and drive in him than I ever would have thought possible.  He is truly developing the ability, in many circumstances, to recover from moments of anxiety and stress.

I've created a bit of a monster by doing this.  Dean used to stress about weave poles in trials - if he even saw weaves, he would zone out on me.  After much reinforcement, no matter what he does, he has come to love weaves, but he really does think that he has completed them, even if all he does is run through the entry!!!

This is completely on me, though.  I'd be willing to wager that if I did some serious weave pole work with him for a few weeks, he would be weaving very solidly.  I should try this experiment this fall . . . . 

I do reinforce Tessa no matter what when she is in the early stages of learning something, or if I cue her incorrectly.  I will withhold reinforcement on her when she truly has performed incorrectly because doing so actually causes her to work harder to figure out what I want.  That is a treasure of an attitude in a dog.  I am careful to cultivate it further by jackpotting the heck out of her once she does get it right!!

I applaud Ms. Fenzi for this blog post.  Based on what I have read and heard, the competitive Obedience world seems to be one that would frown on this particular approach.  I consider it to be tried and true and I am very pleased that Ms. Fenzi has put it out there for many more to think about.

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