Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How to Build Intrinsic Motivation: Using Flow in Your Dog's Training

How do you get your dog to listen to you? You motivate your dog. Extrinsic motivators are things like food, toys, play etc. Intrinsic motivators is what it's called when the task itself is rewarding to the dog. A good training practice is to use them both effectively.

However, the thing about intrinsic motivation is that it's typically hard to use in training scenarios. It's easier to access if you do something that is more in line with your dog's natural instincts. You don't need treats and toys to get a Border collie to enjoy herding or an Alaskan husky to enjoy pulling. So, what about things like obedience? How do you access intrinsic motivation when you ask your dog to heel or come when called or stay?

Easy answer: You become a better trainer and clean up your training mechanics: rate of reinforcement, clear criteria, clean treat delivery, using the proper reinforcer for the dog, reading the dog, challenging the dog without overwhelming him, etc...

And really, it might just be easier to understand how important all of that is when we explain it through something called flowThis is a psychological phenomenon described by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. There are three main aspects in using flow in training:
  • Defined goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback
  • Balance between perceived skill and challenge
Now, to cover my butt so I'm not accused of anthropomorphism (attributing human traits to animals), I'm not going to say that dogs go into a flow state. But I will say that giving a dog defined goals, clear and immediate feedback, and balancing the dog's skills with challenge cause a dog to be more focused and motivated on the tasks, as well as learn faster. And most trainers have had these perfect training sessions or the perfect run in a trial where the dog is completely focused on the task and performs to the best of his ability. Hopefully, understanding how and why everything went right will allow us to make it more likely to happen in the future.

Below is a video of Pip, in real time, learning a new trick. I throw the treat to reset her so that she can run up to the target with all the enthusiasm she needs to feel like she's having fun. Note that her focus is so immersed in the task that she doesn't care that there are people outside the door, despite being normally reactive to that trigger.

What happens when you have an animal with a history of working with defined goals, clear and immediate feedback, and a balanced between perceived skill and challenge? You get an animal who finds intrinsic value in the work and who would choose to interact with you over any other distractions in the environment. It also improves attention span and allows the animal to recover quickly from incorrect responses in training. Below is a video of Fiona NTD, my guinea pig (yes, this applies to guinea pigs, too), learning a more advanced version of a trick she has already learned.

Interestingly enough, this has been explored in training methods already. Something called Loopy Training demonstrates this by giving the dog a loop in which they can start to work in a comfortable rhythm. This gives them immediate feedback and clear goals with no pause in the training. When the loop is clean (easy for the dog), the trainers are advised to move on.

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