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Building Behaviors By Making Rules

Although I might have specific training sessions when working on a new behavior or refining one when a fast rate of reinforcement is important, I often don’t actually have training sessions.  I have built a variety of behaviors by just setting rules and changing those rules to refine the behavior until it reaches the final variation.

Rio is really persistent when he wants to play, to the point of driving me nuts.  I started by ignoring all the attempts to make me play in hopes that he would eventually stop… well, after three weeks of having every tennis ball, tug toy, and probably 1/3 of the stuffed toys in my lap by the time I went to bed I decided to change tactics.  Having toys shoved in my lap and thrown at me for hours at night was more punishing than just throwing the darned ball but I didn’t want to become a slave to his drive.  So I found a happy medium that reduces the number of throws I make and increases the work he has to do to get me to throw the ball.

Rio has this really quite hilarious behavior when he has multiple tennis balls to retrieve.  He will shove one in his mouth, try really hard to jam the second in, eventually he will give up. He then drops the ball he has and picks up the other one, while putting his paw on the one he just dropped.  He then stairs at the one under his paw… and the cycle happens again.  Sometimes he tosses the ball in his mouth closer to me, picks up the one under his paw then puts is paw on the one he just tossed (which gets him closer to me).  The entire time he is staring and thinking desperately about how he can get more than one ball back at a time.  It clearly takes a lot of brain power to work through the process–add in 3 or 4 other tennis balls into the mix and it gets even MORE entertaining.

What does that have to do with me not wanting to play ball anymore?  Well, a few weeks ago I started working on setting new rules for our game.  In order for me to throw the tennis balls he must retrieve all the ones I had previously thrown.  I started with throwing two tennis balls simultaneously a short distance and watching has he went through the aforementioned process of bringing me back a ball.  Knowing he would eventually go back and get the other one, I simply waited and as soon as I had both of the tennis balls before throwing them.

Over the course of the few weeks, I gradually increased the number of tennis balls I would throw at once.  Each time I added another tennis ball, it would take him longer to retrieve (since if there were still more than one ball to choose from he’d revert to the ball in the mouth/ball under paw process).  Now, I throw 5 tennis balls at a time and it takes him quite a while to retrieve them all–inevitably the last two will have bounced around and ended up hidden in corners and under chairs.  He gets the game quite nicely now and we have found a happy medium… I don’t have to throw as often and I don’t, unintentionally, end up with all the toys in my lap.  A pleasant by-product of this new game is that he gets tired more quickly because he’s using more brain power, is making more trips to retrieve the tennis balls, and is using his nose to sniff out those that have gotten lost.

By simply instilling new rules, I was able to build a new behavior.  No training sessions needed… just clearly defined rules that were increased incrementally and rewarded with some life rewards.  I taught door manners, dinner manners, and car manners in a very similar manner–I set rules that were easy to achieve (likely to happen) naturally during everyday occurrences, rewarded with life rewards, and then began to change the rules to further refine the behavior.

I’m going to keep the poll up for another day or two, if you haven’t already voted, please do… if you have other requests, either comment to the poll or comment to this post!

7 Comments
  1. Rio is hilarious. Are you sure he doesn’t have a brother that needs a home? 😉

    • Nope, he had a sister but she was a lot like Risa… little shy, much more reserved… not quite what you want! LOL!

  2. Excellent post! I have the same issue with one of my boys…wil apply your rule changing idea! Thanks!

  3. Brilliant! My boyfriend’s dog Jake is similarly toy-driven. “Oh, you don’t want to play with the rope? How about the ball? No? The bone? Um, this stuffed toy?” until you eventually have a whole basket of toys spilling out of your lap. We will have to try the multiple toys at once method and see if it works for us as well 🙂

    • HAHA, exactly… I dont want to be a slave for him but i also don’t want him giving me all the toys in the house, so he has to play by my rules to get me to throw. I hope it works out for you, i know how crazy annoying it can be to have all sorts of toys thrown in my lap all night long!

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