E170: Chrissi Schranz - "What is reinforcement anyway?"

Have you ever considered that reinforcement is actually a behavior, and can be taught, put on stimulus control and trained to fluency in the same ways? Chrissi shares that and more in this week's interview.

Transcription

Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Chrissi Schranz.

A dog trainer, translator, and chocolate-addict, Chrissi is now based in Antigua, Guatemala.

She has been fond of dogs of all sizes, shapes, and personalities for as long as she has been able to think — especially the so-called difficult ones. After training the Dachshund of her early teenage years in traditional ways at her local obedience club, she learned about clicker training and got hooked on force-free, motivational methods.

Her work days are spent doing the things she loves most: thinking about languages, writing, and teaching pet dog manners and life skills to her clients and their dogs. Chrissi loves working with people and dogs, and training, playing, and hiking with her own dogs.

Hi Chrissi, welcome to the podcast.

Chrissi Schranz: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Excited to have you back. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who the dogs are that you share your life with?

Chrissi Schranz: Sure. My Border Collie, Mick, and my Malinois, Game. These days we're Bike-joring and hiking a lot, everything we can do well remaining socially distant. Mick is teaching me about herding as well. He's a great teacher. And with Game I've just started a new socially isolated

training project, that's human remains detection. We're new to this, and I'm sure we have a long way to go, but Game thinks it's a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. The reason I wanted to talk today is because you have a super-interesting course on the schedule right now: May the Reinforce Be With You! The description starts out, "Starting from the assumption that reinforcers are behaviors rather than things …" and I was like, "That's a loaded phrase." So I was thinking that was a great place to start the conversation. What do you mean by "reinforcers are behaviors"?

Chrissi Schranz: We tend to think of reinforcers as objects, like a hot dog or a ball, but actually there's nothing inherent in the ball that makes it reinforcing. It's the behavior of chasing and fetching the ball, or the behavior of eating the hot dog, that makes it reinforcing.

Everything we commonly call a reinforcer can be looked at as a behavior. For example, a treat is the behavior of eating. The tug toy is the behavior of playing tug. And the Chuck-It is the behavior of fetching. When we're looking at reinforcers in this way, it helps us see a way out of common problems that trainers encounter, like, "My dog won't eat in public," or "My dog loves chasing the ball but won't bring it back."

Traditionally, trainers have jumped to the conclusion that therefore they cannot use this reinforcer, or maybe there's something wrong with their dog. When we look at reinforcers as things, that is true. When our dog doesn't engage with them in the way that we hoped for, we hit a dead end. So if an inherently fantastic object isn't showing its inherently fantastic qualities, all we can do is throw out the object because it must be broken.

Now when we reframe reinforcers as behaviors, all of a sudden we see a way forward. We're dog trainers. We know how to train behaviors. If we can train dogs to do weave poles or heel or fetch us a beer from the fridge, certainly we can teach them to eat in public as well. Eating in public is a comparatively simple behavior, and once we've switched to that mindset of reinforcers as behaviors, it's clear what we need to do: make a training plan and then get started.

Melissa Breau: I like that. How do you proof and generalize something that's already a reinforcer?

Chrissi Schranz: That's a second step. First we think of the picture of the goal behavior. What does it look like? What behavior do we want our dog to perform? For example, when I throw a treat, the behavior I'm looking for could be chase the treat, eat the treat, immediately return, stop in front of me, offer eye contact, and wait for the next cue.

That's actually a behavior chain that makes us realize it's more complex than just, oh, eating. We will train this behavior to fluency in a distraction-free environment, like we do with a sit or a down or the weave poles, and then we take it into more and more distracting environments. We gradually raise the level of distractions to continue setting our dog up for success, and eventually we'll have a dog who is able to chase treats and eat in public spaces just as enthusiastically as in your back yard.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk us through some examples of what it looks like and how it's helpful with your dogs?

Chrissi Schranz: Sure. Mick came to me as an adult. He had been a farm dog all his life and wasn't familiar with urban environments. It was hard for him to pass people on walks or see cars pass. With people, he used to be uncomfortable, and cars triggered his herding instinct. He hadn't been walked in these kinds of environments in his previous life and hadn't learned how humans expect dogs to respond or not respond to the various stimuli we encountered in those urban spaces.

I used a reinforcement behavior to help Mick relax around both people and cars on a walk: a treat scatter. I trained this at home, my marker cue is treats, and it means a handful of treats is going to be scattered in the direction I'm facing. I'm not stingy here. It's usually a big handful, and I scatter it over as big an area as possible. What is possible will depend on the respective environment. It's not uncommon to take two minutes or more to find all the treats, for example, if I'm scattering them in higher grass.

So in this case the goal behavior I was aiming for was that Mick would hear the treats cue, look at me to see where and in what direction I was turning my body, move that way, and then immediately start searching after I had tossed the treats. I wanted him to not lift his head until he had found all the treats.

I started easy and then moved to more and more difficult environments, for example, my yard next to the fence where hikers would pass. When he could do it there, we started using the scatters on walks when cars or people passed. Him looking at me when hearing that cue gave me the advantage that I could turn him away from the passing people or cars and put my body in-between them without having to physically move him in any way.

In this particular case, this is also counter-conditioning, so timing is really important. I wanted Mick to spot the trigger first — that could be a car or a person — and then I cued the treat scatter. The scatter turns him away from the trigger and lasts until the trigger has passed. But I really wanted the sight of the trigger to eventually predict a scatter. Timing is really important here. You don't want to accidentally teach your dog that a treat scatter predicts the approach of a scary or disturbing thing.

Melissa Breau: It's really interesting. It's a neat way of using a scatter. In the description, you also share quite a few "unusual" reinforcers. Can you share a little more on those and what the benefit is to having them?

Chrissi Schranz: That's the most fun part of this class, at least for me. Once we look at reinforcers as behaviors, we start seeing reinforcing behaviors all around us. Many behaviors your dog already enjoys, you can potentially harness them as reinforcers. That could be squirrel chasing, swimming, playing with a dog friend, or saying hi to a human friend.

All these behaviors can also function as reinforcers for other less likely behaviors. A less likely behavior is any behavior your dog doesn't naturally display or doesn't naturally enjoy, like maybe heeling or doing weave poles. Using creative reinforcers has several advantages. It will allow you to work in highly distracting places. For example, if all the dog is thinking about is chasing squirrels, if it's safe for the dog to chase squirrels in the space, there's no reason not to give him access to this activity. But we also want a strong recall to be safe in this space. So we can work up to recalling our dogs and rewarding them with an opportunity to chase squirrels. Things like that can work in places where our food or toy rewards aren't enough of a paycheck.

Melissa Breau: My next question was going to be what the benefits are of having them, but I think you've covered that, unless there's anything else you want to add there.

Chrissi Schranz: I think the biggest benefit is clear communication. If your dog knows exactly what he's going to get and where it will show up, you get two things. You're reducing the frustration, because the dog always knows what's coming and doesn't have to hope or guess. Especially specific marker cues that will let the dog know where something will show up, you can also use to your advantage.

That is something I learned from Shade Whitesel. I've used creative behaviors as reinforcers for a long time, but it was really Shade who got me hooked on using different marker cues as well for different reinforcing behaviors or locations. Her classes are a great way to learn more about the sport's specific application of location-specific markers.

For example, let's say you're working on heeling and your dog is forging, but then there's this tiny moment when he's just in the right position. That's where you can use your marker cue for the treat or toy showing up behind the dog. If you do that, you've done two things. You've marked the perfect moment and you've gotten the dog to expect the reinforcer behind him, like, thinking "behind me" thoughts will reduce forging in the future.

Melissa Breau: Inevitably, somebody is listening to this right now and going, "OK Chrissi, this sounds pretty cool … but it also sounds like a ton of work!" Can you talk a little more about how can this help sports training and behavior work for somebody with their dog?

Chrissi Schranz: I find it fun because I like having a large vocabulary of marker cues. When I started out and I first heard about that concept — because that's not my concept; I learned it from Shade, and I don't know who she got it from, but I think it's been around for a while — but when I first heard about it, I was thinking exactly that, or thinking, Well, that sounds really hard. I'm not going to remember all those different cues, and does it make any sense, and is it necessary?

But then I discovered, I just tried it, and I find it really fun to have lots of different ones, because it feels like my dogs and I are getting a little closer to speaking the same language. And really, great dog trainers have trained excellent dogs for decades without using any marker cues at all. So this isn't the only way of doing it. It's just one of many possible ways. You just have to try and find out if it's right for you.

Melissa Breau: When I talked to Sara about this topic, she was like, "Start with one or two, and then gradually add them." Is that how you would approach it?

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah, start with one or two, or maybe if you're already doing a treat throw and feeding from your hand, so you're already familiar with the mechanics of those, see what happens if you use a click or a tongue click for the food from your hand and a "get it" cue for the treat throw. You don't necessarily have to start out with an entirely new reinforcer that you have never used before. You can just try what it feels like to use different marker cues for the reinforcers you already have.

Melissa Breau: Mentioning as part of this, or part of the value of all this, is that it can really help us control our dog's emotional state a little bit and can help us get the emotions we want in our training. Can you talk to that a little bit?

Chrissi Schranz: This is about the kind of reinforcer we're using more than about the marker cue. So depending on what reinforcer you use, and on your dog's feelings about this reinforcer, you'll evoke different emotions.

For example, my dogs get less excited about eating kibble than about toy play. I will use a single piece of kibble delivered between the front paws to reward a calm or a stationary behavior, and I'll use a game of tug or fetch to reward a high-energy, exciting behavior.

The emotions evoked by those reinforcers leak back into the behavior we are reinforcing. So if I want a relaxed down, the low-value food treat that's delivered in a calm way will help my dog think relaxing thoughts, and if I want a high-speed recall or a flashy heeling, chasing or tugging will energize this behavior.

Melissa Breau: I know your syllabus mentions switching back and forth between food and toys. Would this class be appropriate for a dog that doesn't have a high food drive or maybe struggles with their toy skills?

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah, absolutely. We just started Week Two, which is all about all the ways we can deliver food, and how to train and generalize the behavior of eating to different environments. One of my girls is working towards eating in the presence of bodies of water, which are very exciting for her dog.

Week Three will be toy week. We'll repeat the same with toys, so all the kinds of ways we can deliver toys and generalizing those to different places. Here's another shout out to Shade. If you're training for performance work, her toy class is a must. I'm working on foundations in this class, and she can take you to the next level, especially around flashy heeling and flashy obedience behaviors.

Melissa Breau: For those listening, Chrissi and I are talking on Tuesday of Week Two, but you'll have until the 15th, which is actually the Monday after this comes out, to register, if you are interested. Can you share a little more, Chrissi, about what you cover in the class and who else might be a good fit for it?

Chrissi Schranz: I think your questions have covered most of that. We talk about traditional reinforcing behaviors, such as eating and playing, and creative reinforcing behaviors, such as swimming and digging, chasing birds, playing with other dogs. Basically we're taking a bird's eye view of reinforcement and then we're zooming in on various parts of it.

It's a great intro class for anyone who wants to learn more or to learn how to work with reinforcers effectively. It's also a good class for puppies. Many of the exercises are fun rather than hard work, which makes it a good fit for dogs who are just starting out and who want to learn that training is most of all really fun.

And I have some pretty nerdy lectures on timing and mechanics, too. It's a nice class to pick if you want to improve your mechanics as well.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last question here. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Chrissi Schranz: I guess the importance of extending the values we hold in dog training to our fellow humans as well. If you value treating dogs with kindness, treat people kindly too.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Chrissi!

Chrissi Schranz: Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 

Credits

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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