Using Positive Reinforcement/Operant Conditioning as a Guide Dog Handler

I have always been a fan of positive reinforcement, I began researching how to use it many years ago when I was trialling in competitive obedience with my pet dog. I have also successfully trained sheep, alpacas and llamas using a clicker and treats.

As my vision began to deteriorate some aspects of clicker training became quite challenging but nevertheless it is still a valuable tool that I use almost daily in my interactions with Wiley.

When I am out walking and working with Wiley both my hands are occupied so fiddling with a clicker isn’t all that convenient. Instead I use the word ‘yes’, said in an excited tone as a marker to capture the behavior I want to reinforce.

For Wiley the ultimate reward is a treat, he is a Labrador after all 🙂 I also use praise and ear scratches but a treat is my reward of choice when I am teaching new destinations, behaviours or rewarding an exceptional performance.

When it comes to giving treats I use them frequently in the initial stages of training something new but then change to a variable schedule once the behaviour is reliable. I also keep a special treat at the bottom of my treat bag which I pull out for exceptional work. For example when he recently disobeyed my forward command to cross the road as a bicycle was approaching.

For Wiley creating a ‘reward experience’ generates more excitement about receiving his treat. I do this by using an excited voice and building up his anticipation.

Another tool I find helpful is using a verbal corrector, if Wiley makes a mistake, gets distracted etc I say “Aah Ah” in a firm but not angry tone. If he has made a mistake wherever possible I will ask him to re-do whatever it is he mucked up, then I can praise him when he gets it right. If he is distracted I will ask him to watch me so his attention is back on me and not on whatever has distracted him. As I can’t see if his eyes are on mine I touch his head and use the direction of his nose as the indicator if he is doing what I ask. Once again I am quick to praise when he is doing the right thing.

One of the hardest things for me is ensuring I reinforce a desired and not a discouraged action. As I can’t see what Wiley is doing it can be difficult to capture behaviours i want to reinforce.

Here are some examples:

A. I am walking along a path and Wiley veers off, has he done this because there is something blocking the path? In which case Wiley has done the right thing so I should reward and reinforce the behaviour.

Or has he left the path to say hi to a dog that is walking off to the side. In this situation Wiley is distracted so his behaviour should be discouraged and not rewarded or reinforced.

B.  WIley walks past food on the ground on numerous occasions, I don’t know it is there so I don’t reward or reinforce the behaviour, then on one occasion the temptation is too much and he pick up a chip off the ground. Now he has self rewarded a bad behaviour.

Asking people I am with to fill me in on what is happening around me helps me acknowledge and reinforce Wiley’s good work. Also I’ve found the longer we work together the easier it is for me to figure out whether to reward or not.

My favourite thing about using positive reinforcement is that it engages Wiley and makes working a fun and enjoyable activity for us both.

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