Despite what I may have led you to believe, Jelly has many advanced dog skills. She can do all sorts of magnificent tricks, like shaking a paw while laying down, sitting, or standing. She sits and stays while we fill her bowl with high-priced kibble, and refrains from eating her meal until we release her, which happens as soon as we hit our tolerance threshold for drool on the kitchen floor.
Now that she is maturing, I am enjoying my trips with Jelly to the off-leash park more. Jelly stays fairly close by. If she lags behind, it’s only to sniff a particularly fragrant blade of grass. Rarely do I have to call her to me anymore; she usually remains within a reasonable distance.
Except when she doesn’t. I attribute these lapses to my never training her to come when I call her. You’d think I’d have mastered this command, which requires an understanding of basic reinforcement theory. You learned all about reinforcement theory in Intro Psych, right? If so, you likely received a better grade than my mediocre B, thereby better preparing yourself for elementary dog training.
I know how I should have trained Jelly to come. First, I was to reward her every time she came, or as we say in psychology speak, to reinforce her on a continuous-reinforcement schedule. This approach is best when a dog is learning a new behaviour. The reward could involve my greeting Jelly excitedly or, more often (bad Annie), my giving her a treat.
Once Jelly came every time I called–did she ever?–I should have stopped giving her a treat each time (in other words, I should have shifted to intermittent reinforcement). This means I should have rewarded her occasionally, on what’s known as a variable-ratio schedule. The best way to maintain a learned behaviour is not to know when to expect the next reward. I want Jelly to comes each time thinking she might score a treat, which she may or may not.
Diligent dog trainers stop rewarding with treats altogether once the behaviour is mastered. These trainers naively believe that their dogs will come simply in order to please them. Forget that. Jelly comes only if there’s something in it for her, and that something must be edible.
But that’s only part of the problem. Recently I’ve realized that, rather than my training her, Jelly has been training me. Every so often I turn around, only to find my sweet dog MIA. When I look her way, I barely see her head above that long fragrant grass. Eventually she looks my way. She knows she should come but is waiting for me to call her first. That’s because she’s learned that if she runs to me out of the goodness of her heart, I’ll greet her excitedly but won’t proffer a treat. She knows I give her a treat only if she comes when I call her, so she’s learned to wait until I beckon, and then she comes a-running.
Now you probably understand why I received that B in Intro Psych. Not only have I failed at basic reinforcement theory, my dog understands the theory better than I do. She has me wrapped around her huge Basset paw.