Demand curves in dog training

“Changes in reward value can be simple – don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry – or complex. Take economic ‘elasticity,’ the degree to which a consequence is rigidly demanded or has substitutes. You might not care if you drink tea, coffee, or a cola for breakfast (elastic), but you need your caffeine (not elastic). A lot clearly depends on what choices are available. And a lot depends on rules. If you care about environmental issues, you might pay more for shade-grown coffee, or, switching to lunch, an organic, locally grown tomato. Rules, signals, schedules, emotional associations … sometimes the simple ‘naked’ reward value of a consequence seems the least part of it. The possibilities are dizzying.

Some of us respond most strongly to a change in price or effort, others to how often the rewards come, and others to need-it-now impatience with delays. In economic terms, our ‘demand curves’ are different.” (1)

This last part is really interesting, since it applies to dog training as well as human choice-making. While the laws of learning apply to everyone (and this is what makes them so beautiful!), we also have to keep in mind that every dog (or human) we work with is different. As Susan Friedman has it: “It’s always a study of one.”

The laws of learning are universal; they are a backdrop to everything we train or choose, whether we’re aware of it or not. However, how we can most effectively put these laws into practice depends on the individual we’re working with, because every individual’s “demand curve” is different. My own two dogs are perfect examples of this.

Phoebe is a need-it-now kind of Poodle. When there’s a high-value object she wants, it is very hard for her to patiently wait for it. She’s ready to do anything for me in order to obtain the object of her demands, and if I don’t tell her what to do fast enough, she’ll try throwing all kinds of tricks at me.

Fanta, on the other hand, responds most strongly to the effort required for obtaining something he wants. If a lot of strength is required, he will often decide – forgive me anthropomorphizing – it is not worth it. At least, that’s what it looks like to me: he’ll do the Greyhound version of shrugging it off, and his facial expression seems to say, “Whatever. I’ll find something else to do.”

Of course, R+ et. al. work for every single dog. However, if we want to train effectively, we have to take a slightly different approach depending on the nature of our dog’s demand curve.

K.H. Ganzi, a successful agility and obedience competitor and clicker trainer, once observed that dogs like Phoebe (and many Border Collies he has worked with) require rapid-fire cues and a fast-paced working style from their human lest they explode with impatience. This actually inspired a kind of eureka! moment for me and has changed the way I look at a certain type of “hyper” dog.

There is a philosophy of dog training that will tell you that, if you have an exuberant dog, you have a stressed dog, and you must reduce the stress in her life in order to “cure” her exuberancy. I used to agree to some degree, which is why I tried to do less with Phoebe, and do things more slowly.

“Doing less” – less walks, less play sessions, more quiet – will indeed help an antsy dog calm down to some degree: adrenalin and cortisol are set free whenever we’re experiencing something exciting (no matter whether we are happy or scared about the experience). By means of reducing our dog’s experiences, we lower the adrenalin and cortisol levels in their bodies.

However, when we finally do go out to have fun with them again, they are likely to act even crazier than before, since they are starved for experiences. So this does not really seem like a good solution, especially when it comes to working dogs who need to move, solve riddles, see and do stuff in order to feel well. (When it comes to truly stressed, i.e. anxious or traumatized dogs, of course, this is a different matter.)

So in line with this philosophy, I used to do lots of quiet things with Phoebe, and only asked her to do something for me every once in a while A lot of the time, she “exploded” with impatience: she wanted to do stuff, goddmmit, and she wanted to do stuff NOW!

After hearing Ganzi’s observation, I realized that for Phoebe, fast-paced working sessions and rapid-fire reinforcemets were LESS stressful than quiet sessions where she had to wait a long time for the next cue: with fast position changes and one cue following the next, she seemed to have a lot more fun, less frustration, and higher success rate during training sessions.

That doesn’t mean that she cannot work slowly, but it means that if I want Phoebe to work slowly and develop more deferral tolerance, I need to start with fast-paced training sessions and then slowly and gently slow them down over time as her delay tolerance increases.

For a dog who rapidly shuts down with frustration when the demand seems too hard or stresses out quickly when the owner asks too many things of him too fast, on the other hand, I would start the other way round – start with asking very few things and taking lots of down-time.

(1) Schneider, Susan M. The Science of Consequences, p. 220f.