Dog Parks and Competition Rings - What Do They Have in Common?

One of our clients requested we meet at a dog park for our fourth lesson. I began thinking about the reinforcement process at a dog park. It's often inadvisable to bring food into a dog park, lest you be mobbed by dogs feeling snacky. Food could also encourage dogs to rumble over resources. These same rumbles could also occur over toys. So, how do you keep your dog responding to cues in the dog park without rewarding with food or toys? I realized that dog parks and competition obedience have something in common: no food is given during the activity or competition. 

Margaret Simek of One Happy Dog is one of the best competition obedience trainers around. She trains each individual behavior needed for competition obedience to fluency, then chains the behavior sequences together. Margaret calls this interval training. Bob Bailey, ScD calls it units of behavior. A unit of behavior or interval reflects the behavior duration and the number of behavior sequences needed before a reinforcer or reward (i.e. food or play) is given. 

When training with positive reinforcement, we're also creating a Pavlovian association with the behavior itself. If the dog has a 1:1 ratio of behavior to treats or play, the dog may start to reflexively drool or become excited while doing the behavior,  even before any reinforcer is available. Now, performing the behavior itself has become rewarding and part of the reinforcement process! This becomes extremely useful when the dog has to work for long periods of time before being rewarded with food or play. 

So what does this have to do with your dog's behavior at a dog park? Does your dog come when called at the dog park? A rock solid recall is a must. But, how can you maintain such a recall without any food or toy rewards inside the dog park? Think of the dog park as your show ring. The training takes place before the show!  Build the dog park recall as a unit of behavior. 

Start with training a recall inside your home in a systematic fashion, gradually adding distractions and distance as the dog is able to handle them. A force-free trainer can help you get started. You may want to choose a recall cue specific for the dog park. 

In preparing for dog park recalls (which won't be rewarded with food or toys and have the added competing reinforcers of playing with other dogs) at home, you're going to add releasing the dog back to play after coming when called. The unit of recall behavior in a dog park will be a given number of recalls and releases. Ultimately, you will leave the dog park after a final recall. If your dog LOVES playing with other dogs, releasing your dog back to play can be reinforcing and leaving the park can be punishing. To avoid leaving the dog park from becoming punishing and prevent evasive maneuvers, make sure to play with your dog outside of the dog park (e.g. tag/chase). You can also ask for behaviors your dog loves to do! For instance, teach your dog to love heeling away from the dog park. 

This training takes time and skill. This training should be humane, efficient, effective, and fun. Below is an example of Annie practicing recalls in an enclosed field just outside of the dog park. Please reach out to us for your dog's training plan! We can coach you in person or online!