Criteria is King

Anytime you train your dog, you set rules that dictate what the dog needs to do to earn a reward – criteria. Without a criterion, you’re just feeding (or playing with) your dog. We’re all aware of this, yet it’s very easy to slip into training where we just reward without thinking about criteria. It seems easy enough in the beginning, when we’re just capturing all behaviors that can lead us towards our goal. We love to reward, and all we need to think about is setting the dog up for success and having good timing.

When the dog is on the right track and repeatedly offers the behavior we’re after, it’s very easy to get stuck on still rewarding all tries. I often get asked about what to do with training problems like the dog moving his feet in positions, chewing on the dumbbell or crooked sits. First thing you need to ask yourself is: Am I rewarding it? It might seem like a stupid question, but my experience is that in most cases, people are rewarding the very behavior they consider problematic. How on earth is the dog supposed to know that we don’t want it?

Of course, one reason why people chose to reward is because they want the dog to get rewarded for working and staying in the game, and they don’t really feel like they know what to do about the issue. In other cases, trainers are just so used to always rewarding that they’re not thinking about the possibility of actually choosing which responses to reinforce. The problem is: You get what you reward. And the longer you reward something you don’t want, the more frustrating it will be to get rid of it. In a perfect world, you set the dog up for success so that you never reward the behaviors you don’t like. In reality, you’ll often reinforce behaviors that are close to what you want, but not perfect, when you begin training. With a lot of behaviors, I don’t find this a problem if you raise criteria and move on quickly.

There are a lot of reasons why trainers get stuck with a behavior they’re not crazy about. There are a lot of ways to tweak and adjust training that will help even if you’re still rewarding all repetitions. But the bottom line is: many trainers need to get more comfortable with setting criteria and withholding reinforcement if the behavior isn’t good enough. In the words of Bob Bailey: If you want more, you have to ask for more. Of course, you can’t ask for everything at once. You need to raise criteria in small steps, but do it often. The longer you stay at one step, the more difficult it will be to get to the next one.

Why am I writing about this? Because I constantly make the mistake, and because I see how quickly I get results when I’m conscious of criteria. I’ll tell you about how I problem solved using stricter criteria in my next blogpost. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have on the subject, and I’ll answer here or in my next blog post.

I also wanted to share these beautiful pictures taken by Thomas yesterday. He’s in the north of Sweden, in the mountains, hunting grouse with old Pax (11 years old!) and Alot (8 months old). They seem to have great weather and some luck with hunting. And Alot is learning a lot about scent, as well as steadiness to birds and retrieving.

Alot on the mountain
Alot retrieving grouse

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