Reinforcements and Cues in the Ring
In response to Debbie's question about verbal CRs and toy/play drive:
In competition your dog has to perform a number of different behaviors correctly, yet you cannot use a primary reinforcer in the ring. Of course, you would work on getting the behaviors on a variable reinforcement schedule, but your dog can lose attitude and enthusiasm pretty easily.
I add some 'soft' verbal CRs. By 'soft' I mean that they are not always followed by a PR, so they're not nearly as strong, but they still have a positive association and can help the dog by raising his excitement level a bit.
Some dogs find certain behaviors, like retrieving or jumping, self-reinforcing. I want to make sure I maximize this enjoyment in a competition dog. You have 2 retrieves (retrieve on flat & retrieve over high jump) and 2 jumps (retrieve over high jump & broad jump) in Open, and 3 retrieves (scent discrimination & gloves) and 2 jumps (directed jumping) in Utility. So I want to make sure, early on, that my dog thinks these activities are great fun and is used to playing 'fetch' and 'jump' long before we get into a ring. You can see that many dogs in Utility feel they are being reinforced when they are 'allowed' to do directed jumping -- they just light up.
I use lots of toys in training because it's another fun way to reinforce my dog. With Copper, the Papillon, his favorite PR is to chase the treat. It's two reinforcers in one -- food and a game! I also use little goofy games like spin and jump, those can be done (in moderation) between exercises in the ring to help keep your dog's attention and attitude.
Melissa asked about formal and informal cues:
I definitely have 2 sets of cues, and am very careful not to use the competition cues unless I expect competition level behavior. I am also very careful not to add the cues to the competition behaviors too soon. Adding the cue seems to 'freeze' the behavior in its current form. I won't add a cue until I have exactly what I want.
I've also had to change cues when things went really bad. With my Golden I quit saying 'heel' all together and just went to a hand signal because 'heel' came to mean something totally different than what I had in mind! I use 'here' for an informal recall -- get in my general vicinity. 'Come' means come straight to me and do a front. I mostly use a hand signal for formal heeling, a verbal for loose leash walking. I use 'wait' for an informal 'hold still for a minute'. 'Stay' is for "don't move a muscle till I get back."
Hope this helps. Deb Jones Planet Canine Akron, OH
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