Why Do Dog's Disconnect After Reinforcement?

Why is it that dogs often disconnect after reinforcement? Have you ever noticed that your dog checks out after he or she has received a reward? This is a pretty common problem, and it can be exhausting to keep your dog in the game. So, why do dogs disconnect after reinforcement?

Handler Disconnects After Rewarding the Dog

How many times do we hand our dog a treat or toss the dog a toy and turn away, moving to the next rep, to stop the video camera, or to talk to an instructor? Eventually, your dog will learn that pattern and will not make any effort to stay engaged. Keeping the dog engaged after the reward and before we start the next rep isn't always at the top of our list!

The Reward Itself Can Distract the Dog From Returning Attention to the Handler

Have you ever had a piece of pie that was so good that you closed your eyes and said, "mmm, this is so delicious!" You aren't thinking of much else at that point, are you? To some dogs, that piece of kibble you just fed is as delicious as that piece of pie. The dog's focus is now on the food, and he or she must consciously switch it back to you.

Does your dog ever run around with the toy and show you he or she would rather play with that toy for a while? Dogs who love toys also can become distracted by the toy reward. The dog must take his or her attention from that toy and focus on you, which can be hard!

So the handler often disconnects after giving the reinforcement, and the dog often becomes distracted by that reward. Both of these problems contribute to the dog struggling to reconnect with you after the reward. What can we do?

Planning Training Sessions to Decrease Disconnection

To have a more effective and efficient training session, it's important to manage that time between the treat and the next rep. It's inefficient to have to get the dog's attention back on us after every reward. It's hard on you and it's hard on the dog, especially if your dog is sniffing around the floor looking for more treats or running in large circles with his or her toy.

Planning a smart training session is critical to maintaining connection between you and your dog. To help improve your training, think about your plan. What are you going to work on? How many reps will you do, or how long will your session be? How will you reward, and how will you set up for the next rep? What are you going to do if the dog makes a mistake? How are you going to end the session?

Once you have figured out what to work on, your next decision should be the length of your training session. To do your best training, the session should be short. What is considered "short" will vary depending on what you're working on. If I'm practicing a single skill, I usually set a timer for 1-2 minutes at the most. If I'm shaping a behavior, my timer is at one minute max. As you start chaining behaviors and adding endurance to your routines, obviously your sessions will be longer, but have a plan before you jump into a session.

If you'd prefer not to use a timer, you can count out the number of rewards you'd like to use in a session. Say you're teaching stand to down. I'll usually do about 10-12 treats for a session like this. For each rep, I give a treat in the down position and a reset treat to get the dog standing again. This means I'll do 5-6 reps before ending that session and moving on to something else.

Planning your training sessions will help keep you from disconnecting from your dog during that session. If you don't disconnect after giving the dog each reward, it will be much easier to keep your dog engaged throughout the whole session. If your criteria involves you and the dog staying connected throughout the session, you will have a much more effective use of your training time.

So How Do We Fix It?

The good news is, we can do stuff about this!! We can make it better! With some prep and a little training, you can have awesome sessions with lots of rewards and little to no disconnection from your dog!

We covered the first step already - plan those sessions! How will you manage that time between the reinforcement and the beginning of the next rep? Some trainers call this "loopy training". Loopy training involves having a plan for every second of the training session. Usually, it involves using reinforcement in a way that sets the dog up for the next rep without any unwanted behaviors in between (like disconnecting!).

In addition, there are a couple of games that I like to teach to my dogs. The two-cookie or two-toy game teaches my dog to eat or get the reinforcement and return to me for more. It shows the dog that after the reward, there may be an opportunity for another one! This also helps the dog understand that after the reward, I might ask for another behavior that will lead to another reward.

I also teach a simple eye contact game. After my dog swallows the treat, I will mark and reward eye contact. I start a clean little loop (there's that word again!) of treat, eye contact, treat, eye contact. No disconnection, and the dog learns to stay in the game.

Recognizing why your dog might disconnect after reinforcement will go a long way to preventing it! If you want to learn more about the games we can play to prevent disconnection, please join me in my December class at FDSA, Connect and Engage With Games: Building Focus for Sports Dogs.

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