Performance Pillars: Delayed Reinforcement Part 2

border collie tugging with handler using delayed reinforcement outside the agility ring
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Performance Pillars is a series about the important skills our dogs need to be successful in agility that are unrelated to obstacles and handling. You can read more about my inspiration behind the series here.

If you missed Part 1 of my post about delayed reinforcement, I suggest you start there. It’s all about what delayed reinforcement is and why it’s so important to being a successful agility competitor. You can check that out here.

Helping Our Dogs Understand Delayed Reinforcement

Some dogs will naturally adjust to the difference between training (rewards happen in the ring) and trials (rewards happen outside the ring). But you won’t know if that’s your dog or not until things start going sideways. I believe it is worthwhile to teach all dogs about delayed reinforcement and set them up for success. If we want the best performance out of our dogs, they need to have perfect clarity about where and when they’ll be getting their reinforcement.

I’ve been lucky to learn about delayed reinforcement from several great trainers. Some details of their methods differ, but I have observed two main elements to effectively teach our dogs that the reward will happen over there after our run. First is the length of time before the reward, and second is the physical distance from the reward. Let’s start by looking at time.

Time

In agility, we need our dogs be able to run for about 20 to 60 seconds – enough time to complete a full course, which may vary in number of obstacles depending on the level. Our dogs need to learn how to perform sequences of obstacles (also known as behavior chains) guided by our handling in order to be successful. That’s the crux of the sport! The length of time before they get the reward is directly tied to how much work they will put out. 

Agility is actually pretty conducive to learning behavior chains. The dog is in motion, and obstacles flow from one to the next. But it’s not exactly fair to expect our dogs to go from three or four obstacles to twenty-one obstacles without some steps in between. Most agility classes are set up this way. Baby dogs may only do one or two obstacles before we reward them. And gradually as you advance, instructors increase the length of the course, and therefore the length of time before our dogs get a reward. This is good training!

But if you find your dog struggling with staying connected to you for a full course, perhaps dropping down to shorter sequences with lots of rewards and then gradually increasing the course length can help your dog regain their enthusiasm. In fact, I think it’s good practice for all dogs to bounce between running full courses and breaking things down to shorter sequences to practice and reward specific skills. We absolutely need to get to a place where our dogs can put out the amount of work for a full course, but we shouldn’t ask for that much work every time we are in a ring.

In general, I think this comes naturally to handlers. No one is stopping to give a cookie or play tug with their dog after each obstacle and it’s an obvious progression from short to long sequences. Where it gets harder is getting the rewards off our body and out of the ring.

Distance

Just as we make behavior chains a gradual process for our dogs, we can do the same with having rewards at a distance. This is something you can even start at home, away from the agility ring, and I think it’s actually a good idea to do so. It’s helpful to build the framework of the concept before bringing it into the agility context. There are several ways to teach your dog to work with confidence and enthusiasm when the rewards are out of sight and I was able to play around with a few different methods. This is an overview of the process I found to make the most sense for my dog.

And really quick, before I explain it, I found this phrase very helpful to repeat to myself throughout the training process: don’t be greedy. I encourage you hold it in your brain too. Okay, now we can begin!

Train a Reward Cue

The first step is to teach our dogs a cue that means “let’s go collect your reward which is located at a distance.” My cue is “candy.” It doesn’t matter if you’re using food or toys as a reward. I used food, so I’ll be referencing treats through all the steps. You can put your reward in a jar or bowl or basket. If you are worried your dog will grab the reward if it’s in an open container, put it in a closed one. I like to put the reward in the container with the dog watching so they understand what’s inside. Set the container on the ground, a chair or a counter, within a couple feet of you and the dog. 

This is an optional step, but I found it helpful. I kept some treats in my pocket. After I set the container to the side and my dog looked back at me after checking out the jar, I rewarded her from my pocket. I know, I know, we are trying to get the rewards off of us, but we won’t spend much time here at all. Once she was looking at me without issue, I moved away from the jar a few feet and when she was moving with me, I rewarded from my pocket.

Now that my dog understood engaging with me and not mobbing the jar is what got her the reward, I ditched the pocket cookies. I repeated the same steps but instead of rewarding from my pocket, I marked her good behavior with “candy”, paused for a beat, and then rewarded from the jar. If I was a few feet away, I would mark, pause and then move with energy to the jar for the reward. The pause is just to separate our marker word from the reward itself; when teaching a new cue it’s smart to keep things clean that way.

Adding in More Work & More Distance

From there, I started asking for some simple, well-known and well-liked cues. Remember our mantra: Don’t be greedy. Keep things easy for the dog. Don’t ask for behaviors they struggle with or that are challenging. For my dog this is things like a hand touch, spin, sit, and down. Now we are going back to our behavior chains, but start gradual. One hand touch, mark, reward from the container. A spin and a down, mark, reward. And so forth.

You can also be gradually building distance away from the jar. Again, don’t be greedy! Some dogs may have a harder time than others with this. If your dog shows any signs of being hesitant to move with you away from the jar, decrease the distance. We want them moving with us confidently so it’s okay to take your time. Once they’re moving with you easily, you can increase the distance.

Eventually I progressed this process until the jar was out of sight from our working space. I like showing the dog where the container is, so they know where to head when you cue the jar. Once my dog had no problem with doing a few behaviors in a row with the jar in the next room, I brought in some cones and did some flatwork type handling with her. One send around the cone, mark and reward from the jar in the other room. A couple cone wraps with a front cross, mark, reward. I used cones because I don’t have much training space at home.

Leash Up Before Rewards

Next I introduced the element of putting on the leash before going to the reward. All the agility organizations in my area require dogs to be leashed before they exit the ring. So we want our dogs to understand the leash is part of the game and that they don’t get to rush to the reward before leashing up. My dog actually really struggled with putting the leash on, it created a lot of pressure on her and she was uncomfortable. I had to spend quite a bit of time training the leash element, and I think leash issues can be more common than one would think. 

Once her leash skills were polished, I would have her put on her leash, mark and then reward from the jar, which was placed at a distance. Then I added back in some work before having her put on the leash, marking and rewarding.

Put Up Some Gates

The next element I added in was ring gates. I have some expandable gates I use as my ring gates at home, but you can also just throw together a DIY creation to mimic ring gates. If you don’t compete at trials that use ring gates, you can skip this step. Personally, I cue “candy” as soon as my dog puts on her leash. You could also wait until you’re past the gate to cue it.

Take the Show on the Road

When my dog was able to do some flatwork and put on her leash and exit the ring gates with enthusiasm all with the reward in the next room, I decided to take it to the agility ring. Because we are patient trainers who are definitely not greedy, we have to lower our criteria. This means, asking for a small amount of easy work and rewarding from a container that’s not too far away. I went all the way back to seeing if my dog could walk with me off leash for a few feet before marking and rewarding from the jar. 

Once I was confident she was engaged and not feeling conflicted about going back to check on the jar, I asked for one jump, marked and rewarded. I kept the jar in the ring at first. Basically, I repeated all the steps I did in my training room at home. Slowly increase the amount of work I ask for. Add in the leash. And gradually move the jar out of the ring.

As for building distance in the location of the jar, think about what makes sense. Where will you actually be rewarding your dog? Will it be near the outside of the ring? At their crate? At your car? If you’ll be partying 10 feet outside the exit gate, then there’s really no need to progress to the point of having the jar on the other side of the training hall. But if you will be rewarding at your car, you need to take steps toward that distance.

Trial Preparation

Once my dog was able to run full courses with rewards outside the ring in training and class, I utilized fun runs and “For Exhibition Only” trial runs to practice our delayed reinforcement skills in an actual trial environment, but with less pressure on me as a handler. Those opportunities allow me to make up easy courses for my dog, which I like because if the environment is challenging, I want to make the work easier at first. For me, that meant shorter, simpler sequences at first.

And when you feel confident about your dog’s understanding of how rewards work at shows, you can go hog wild with trial entries. And by hog wild I mean, you should enter the number of trials and runs that suit your dog’s abilities. Congratulations, you’re now a delayed reinforcement ninja.

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