Behavior Chains

unnamedJohn asks me in the morning how he can best teach Rio to jump from a “pretty” position. A pretty position is a dog sitting on her hind legs with the torso erect. As you can appreciate, this requires quite a bit of core strength and stability. I give John a few pointers – mostly what not to do 🙂 and I leave it at that.

A few days later he shows me the progress with Rio, who is more than happy to oblige. A true case of me doing most of the feedings, the training, the care and the worry, and John being the one that gets lots of goo-goo eyes from Rio.

What John has taught Rio is a perfect example of a behavior chain. A behavior(s) chain is a number of behaviors that are executed in the exact order one after the other. The interesting thing about behavior chains is that the behavior to follow is a reinforcer for the previous.

Behavior chains happen often. Sometimes unbeknownst, people train their dogs to perform a behavior chain. One that they wish not to have in the first place. So let’s look at when we want behavior chains and when we don’t!

We want to train behavior chains when we have a specific and desirable goal in mind, like John’s. When each of the behaviors in the chain are taught to fluency (the dog can perform the behavior in a myriad of situations and has proven to understand the cue with no guessing on the part of the dog) they are then put into the “chain” or order of events. There is more to this technique than I am describing here, but for now this suffices.

Great examples of chains are the ones found in agility. The dog has learned, and is also aided by the handler, to perform one obstacle after the next. During trials since neither food nor toys are allowed while the team is running the obstacle field, it is the engagement with following the obstacle that will provide the reinforcer for the dog to continue working with no other motivation at hand. This can be achieved by teaching the dog, while training, to tackle each one of these obstacles without fear and enjoyment. Of course, running full speed is highly reinforcing for most dogs so this might be another component in motivating the dog to run the agility field.

Now, for behavior chains that are not so desirable abound. Here are some examples: Dog is taught to sit after jumping on someone. Now, the dog jump/sits! Dog demand barks. Owner treats the dog the nanosecond the dog stops barking, the dog resumes barking, the owner treats the dog immediately after the dog stops barking, dog resumes barking… and around, around we go… And my favorite one (not!)

Dog pulls on leash, dog release the taught leash to come back to owner’s side; dog pulls again to self-correct into a loose leash. This is called the “yo-yo” effect.

What is the trick to NOT end with an unwanted behavior chain as described above? First, observe what the dog is actually doing: jumping, barking or pulling, then decide what we want the dog to do instead. Now, with these specifics we now separate the reinforcer (treat, game, etc.) from the first action, so that it only serves as a reinforcer for the behavior we want – the second one.

If I want the dog to sit when saying “hi” instead of jumping and sitting, I wait until the dog has remained in a sit for at least 2-3 seconds and then I pay. So the question is: what am I paying the dog for? Sitting! And not jump/sit.

This is where the fact of consequences having to be pretty immediate after the behavior we want to increase helps us out.

Once a behavior chain is established, it might take a while for the dog to learn the new routine. Be patient with your dog, since after all, you probably taught the behavior chain in the first place.

Do sharpen your observation skills and the timing of reinforcing, and in no time your pup will be executing behaviors you actually want.

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