The Experiment Begins

Thanks to Denise Fenzi and 2 other people on the Fenzi alumni group, I am re-inspired to begin my no food/toys experiment with Vito.  I have absolutely nothing to lose with Vito, especially considering his recent meltdown in AKC and going back into retirement.

For those who are confused right now, the basis is that I will be taking away all food and all toys in our obedience training for the next 6 months? year??? forever?
The goal is not to gradually fade reinforcers.  Not to see how long a behavior itself can be a reward for another behavior.  The goal is to see if a dog will CHOOSE to work when they KNOW the only reward available is me.

Why?  Because clearly I'm a glutton for punishment.  It is not necessary to do this in order to be successful in the obedience ring.  All dogs if you trial long enough, and usually it doesn't take that long, will learn there is never any food, toys, (or corrections) in the ring.  You might be able to trick your dog into thinking you still have food on you for a little while.  And if you do a lot of matches or CDSP trials it may even hold up.  But good trainers don't trick their dogs.  They systematically teach their dogs how to deal with the formality that trials have.  How to handle working long stretches of time without reinforcement.  How to smoothly transition between exercises.  And usually have some sort of jackpot system, with the reward off their body and out of sight.

What I am fascinated with is the process of building up the value of the working relationship.  The value of personal play.  And if successful, then trials become no different than practice.  There is only you and your dog, no external rewards, and no hope of getting them.  Some "balanced" trainers do this.  But what I am interested in is finding a way to successfully accomplish this when the dog always has a choice.  The choice to say no and stop training at any time without consequence.  Is there a way to trump the value of you over the environment and have your behaviors hold up?

Many positive trainers would say no, at least initially.  Behaviors are reinforced through food, toys, and reinforcement rate is gradually diminished.  If behaviors start to diminish you look at where you've been putting value recently.  Recently the value of personal play has been talked about a lot on R+ obedience groups and people are starting to use it a lot more.  Not many trainers silently hand over a cookie anymore or toss their toy without also inserting themselves in the process!

But personal play is still paired a lot with external rewards.  And it's hard to know just how reinforcing personal play can be if you're always backing it up with another reward.  Take tugging for example.  Most trainers don't tug with their puppy in exchange for food anymore as they find it's not needed.  With good toy mechanics, dogs quickly discover how much they love to stalk, chase, pounce, and even kill the toy.  And dogs will love different parts of those sequences  with some dogs preferring the chase and never want to actually bite and some loving that kill.  Dogs who tug for food look very different than those who tug for the sake of tugging.  A few dogs will start to cross over and love tugging even if it's never paired with food again, any my guess would be those dogs just needed food to get them started but quickly discovered how much fun it is on their own.  And even with good toy mechanics there will be some dogs who value tugging very little.  That's ok.

I suspect that just like some dogs value toy play more than others, there are dogs who naturally value personal play.  Those dogs will be easier!  But I don't want to shy away from dogs who don't seem to hold high value to personal play.  The more you use a reinforcer the more you develop it.  Many dogs find food from their food dish way higher value than the same type of food just handed over to them.  Dogs practice eating out of their bowl twice a day, every day, in most families.  I don't think we spend nearly enough time trying to develop the value for play itself.

So this process is seeing just how valuable can we make personal play.  No tricking the dog into believing food/toys will come.  Just giving the dogs a chance to make a choice- play our game or not.
And at first the process will be very, very painful.  Mainly for me.

The first stage will be Hope.  Vito will keep playing with me because he hopes the reward is coming.  He doesn't see the reward until he chooses to work as it is, so he just won't know if I'm working on a very long behavior chain.  I will see an increase in some frustration behaviors, likely more barking.

But then will come stage 2, Disappointment.  Actually punishment.  If you were to give me a Kit Kat every time I took out the trash and then you suddenly didn't, I would feel cheated.  Even if I knew the chocolate wasn't anything more than a way of saying thank you I would still feel upset.  It's not just about not getting a reward, it's about that feeling of loss as I compare it to my expectations.
I fully expect Vito to check out.  To choose to eat the lovely grass in the yard versus playing with me.  And I will let him.

And we will then see what happens in the long term.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe unicorns and rainbows.
Lance made this experiment extremely easy.  Lance loves to work and while he felt the loss of food, the chance to keep playing with me still trumped other choices.  Vito will be harder.  But there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from this knowledge.  I expect that 10 years from now, positive training is going to look very, very different.

If you are interested in playing along I would highly recommend already having a solid foundation in many obedience behaviors with the dog choosing to work without seeing the reward up front.  An attitude of curiosity and caring more about the process than the results will also be necessary as a positive trained route to this path is still in the experimental process.  But this is me publicly committing myself to this process.  I just wish winter wasn't on its way.

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