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Teaching Continuation

By Chris Bach and The Third Way - The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training

(The following article was previously printed in "Front & Finish" dog training magazine)

Last month Chris explained her philosophy of The Third Way method of dog training. She also shared a few examples of how The Third Way works with teaching pets desirable behaviors. This month Chris is discussing the topic of “Teaching Continuation”.

In order for a dog to grasp the concept of continuation, it is necessary to have clear and concise "on" and “off” switches. The "on" switch will always be the cue for a behavior. The “off” switch will be either or both the hand signal, or verbal expression "OK" (or "Free" or whatever the individual trainer prefers.) The hand signal I use is a soft clap then each hand is thrown in the air moving out and away from each other.

To teach our “off” switch or release, we will take advantage of what a puppy learns early in life when an important and vital thing to them is social contact. In doggy language, turning away means social interaction is over, so we teach the off switch "signal" by throwing up our hands and turning away. We teach the "verbal" off switch by saying "OK" and turning away.

Once we begin teaching and using food and play, "OK" means no social contact, food, or play is available. In other words, no more opportunity to be reinforced exists. That’s the psych! Our puppies do NOT want to be "OK-ed" or released. They WANT to continue. Because first impressions are the most lasting, we want our puppy's initial idea of the release to be a let down. Later on, even though the release is followed by something good such as play or getting a toy, the psych is still there that continuing would be just as reinforcing. We maintain this psych by doing neutral releases that are followed by no reinforcement. During initial learning, we avoid as much as possible, releases that are followed by intense reinforcement such as going out a door to play or chasing a ball.

Up until this point Jet, the 4-month old Lab puppy I discussed in my previous column, had experienced the following sequence. First, she was presented with food at her nose and then I moved it away for her. She offered eye contact, subsequently heard the indicator and was given food. She immediately consumed (more like inhaled!) the food. Next, I presented her with food again. In other words, the indicator meant: "You are right. You are done. You are going to be rewarded.” She was released and we had to start over again.

Starting over impedes progress so we now introduced the "continuation" criteria. Basically it is the option, "if you choose to continue, more food (or reinforcement possibility) will come". This is where you experience the really delicious potency of The Third Way. The teaching process is faster and easier if the dog chooses to continue performing to earn further reinforcement instead of constantly breaking concentration. The dog’s choice to continue allows the trainer to impart much more information, because time is not wasted calling them back and reiterating the last step in order to go on to the next step.

In addition to quicker learning, each time the dog commits to continue a behavior, it solidifies his impression that the behavior is a good thing to do. Dogs then heel because they choose to and therefore “like” to heel. The same becomes true for coming, retrieving, scenting, or jumping, etc. Because they have concluded that obeying is a reinforcing thing to do, they become more reliably obedient!

Let’s explore how this worked for Jet. To psych Jet into continuing, I followed the same five steps above, except that instead of offering her food again, I threw up my hands and turned away. Jet immediately raced around in front of me and offered eye contact. I reinforced, signaled OK, and turned away. Once more she raced after me and offered eye contact. I reinforced her, and then I stayed put. Jet consumed the food and immediately offered eye contact again with no cue from me. I waited; reinforced, she chose to continue. I waited longer; she chose to continue. I waited even longer; she still chose to continue. I reinforced. She consumed the food and again, offered eye contact and we continued this ritual for a few minutes.

Finally I released her by saying, "OK" and turned away. She did not want to stop because she had learned that “continuing” offered more opportunity for reinforcement than stopping. Like Jet, dogs trained The Third Way want to continue because stopping means good things are over and done, not about to begin.

Peg worked with Jet on Saturday evening. Besides rehearsing the "extended arm" cue for eye contact, Peg had Jet make eye contact to get out of her crate, eat dinner, and play. She did this simply by not letting Jet have these things until Jet made and maintained eye contact. It worked so well that Peg’s first question to me on Sunday morning was, "How do I get Jet to stop making eye contact?" Isn't that a nice problem? Peg also said she couldn’t believe how long Jet would sit and make eye contact until released even though there was food, dogs, and other distracting things going on all around her. Overnight, Jet had bought into two of the very powerful psyches of The Third Way: (1) "If in doubt, or if you want something, make Eye Contact"; and (2) "Good things keep happening when you choose to continue".

(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002. All rights reserved.