Chaining in dog training – Cambridge Puppy Training

chaining behaviour

I showed you a video the other day, and said I would explain in a bit more detail what ‘chaining’ is. In dog training, we sometimes hear the term ‘behaviour chaining’, and it’s quite a complicated little subject! Well, it can seem it, and I must admit, I myself found it difficult to get my head around it when I first heard the term! But, I can assure you, it’s not that complicated really. So, what is chaining??

When looking at definitions, Karen Pryor has a great one, “process of combining multiple behaviours into a sequence linked together by cues, and maintained by a reinforcer at the end of the chain”. So……if you’re still with me, I’ll break that down slightly. Essentially, the cue you give, is used as a marker and a reinforcer for the previous behaviour, and the cue for the next behaviour too.

You could say the cue is multi-purpose! It is an ‘ok’ or marker for the previous behaviour, and this ‘ok’ or green light of the cue, becomes rewarding in itself! So it is a conditioned reinforcer. (Conditioned reinforcer is something neutral ie. clicker, that is paired with a primary reinforcer, ie. food, to create association). So if done well, you can reinforce the previous behaviour by giving the cue for the next! Perfect!

It’s much much easier to explain this with examples I think! So, for example, you’re doing retrieves with you dog. You ask your dog to wait while you throw the dumbbell, you then release to fetch, you then recall, you then ask for sit and hold, you then take the dumbbell and reward. How many different behaviours are occurring here? Lots! We ask our dog to wait, whilst we throw the dumbbell do we reward with a treat before asking to fetch? No, the cue to fetch IS the reinforcer, plus the cue for the next behaviour. Once your dog has run to the dumbbell and picked it up, do we then run to him and reward with a treat? No. We recall, that recall is then the cue for the next behaviour and the reinforcer for the retrieve behaviour. And so it goes on and you will likely not give your treat until the end.

Is it the repetition of doing this sequence again and again that keeps the dog performing this behaviour? Or is it the cues you’re giving along the way, marking and reinforcing and indicating the next behaviour? Interesting question, and feel free to answer me.

In this specific example, you will likely have trained these behaviours individually, and certainly marked and rewarded each one. However you don’t need to always do that! If your dog has a simple sit nailed, when you are about to go out for a walk, your pup will sit for his lead and wait by the door, your cue for this when you taught it may have been ‘sit/wait’, you get your stuff and go outside with an ‘ok’, that cue to move forward is the reinforcer for the sit/wait and a cue for the next behaviour too! You then go to your car to pop your pup in the back, he waits patiently whilst you unlock and open the door, you don’t need to actively reward each and every step, his jumping up onto the seat, his sitting in the back seat, his laying down whilst you drive, all of these are amazingly reinforced by the cue for the next behaviour! 

I hope this makes sense, it’s a tad complicated to understand but once you do, it makes perfect sense! The cue will be not only a cue for the next behaviour, but a marker for the previous one and a reinforcer for that previous behaviour too!

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