Teaching Behaviors as Secondary Reinforcers

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Understanding reinforcement is the key to understanding how dogs learn. Reinforcement can be categorized as either primary or secondary. A primary reinforcer is a reinforcer that an animal needs to survive, such as food, water, or shelter. When you give your dog a treat for sitting on cue, you are using a primary reinforcer. However, when reinforced regularly, the “sit” behavior itself can become a secondary reinforcer.

Get Puppies Off to a Great Start— From Anywhere

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One of the most common questions that puppy parents ask is “What should I teach my puppy first?” Teaching a puppy a cue to hand target (touching the palm of your hand when it is presented) is useful, as it becomes the foundation behavior on which to build many other behaviors. Targeting is an excellent way for your puppy to practice focusing his/her attention on you. It can also be used to help puppies learn to greet people politely.

Teaching a Release Cue

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As important as it is to teach your dog basic behaviors such as “sit” and “stay,” it’s equally as important to teach a release cue to let the dog know when he can release from his current position. Not only a useful training tool, a solid release cue can save your dog’s life. Use a release cue before going over a threshold, like through a doorway, out of a crate, or out of a vehicle. A release cue is also extremely useful for dog sports, as it builds a solid start line as well as clarity and confidence for duration behaviors.

Modifier Cues: Left Paw Versus Right Paw

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If you teach a dog to distinguish between his left paw and his right paw, you will have a terrific skill for competition training. The behavior has many other handy applications, such as grooming (nail trims), vet visits, and more. Service-dog trainers can think of a dozen applications for this concept! In this video, KPA CTP Carol Milner’s dog Sweep demonstrates his knowledge of left paw versus right paw.

Teach an Alternative Behavior to Barking

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Does your dog bark wildly when the doorbell rings? Dogs bark when they hear the doorbell for several reasons: they are excited (“Yay, someone is here!), they are scared (“Oh no, someone is here!”), or they are simply doing their duty (“Someone is here—I need to tell my humans!”). No matter what your dog’s motive is for barking, you can teach your dog to be quiet when the doorbell rings by asking for an incompatible behavior, such as lying down on his/her bed.

Getting Started with Non-Food Reinforcers

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The effective use of non-food reinforcers is a critical skill that all trainers will likely use or need at some point in their training career. In this video, Ken Ramirez and his dog Marlin demonstrate the use of clapping as a conditioned reinforcer. Ken begins by teaching Marlin that clapping is associated with yummy food. Once Marlin associates clapping with reinforcement, Ken begins cueing behaviors and then clapping.