There are a few different kind of alerts that you might want to teach your dog. The natural alerts, ie: “someone is in the driveway!” Or maybe the not so natural alerts, as when you train a dog in hearing service behaviors ( “there’s a weird noise coming out of this machine!”) or Search and Rescue, where a dog might notify you, “I found the missing person!”
Regardless of the sorts of alerts you are thinking about training, there are a few that you already might know how to train, and these are good behaviors to think about for examples in how you are already training alerts.
For example, does your dog tell you he needs to go outside to go to the bathroom? Maybe you’ve taught him that you will open the door when he bashes a bell, or maybe he whines at the door, or maybe he comes and says “woof” and you know to follow him back to the door. You’re rewarding his alert (whatever it is) with following him to a “reinforcement zone,” or “reinforcement machine.” You operate that machine by letting him out to do his business.
At the simplest level, this behavior equation is: Dog offers behavior, you reward it by following him to a “reinforcement machine” that you know how to operate. We can change the conditions in the formula. What do we want the dog to do to alert us to act? How can we help the dog discover how this “reinforcement machine” is operated?
To help me think through what sorts of alerts I want with my new puppy, I’m experimenting with training several different “alert” alternatives in my older dogs. I’m re-training really, as they have previously learned other alert behaviors, and so of course they begin with offering those old behaviors (Bee steps on my feet to alert me to a sound machine, or they bark me to come), but they are quick to understand a few simple new rules to our old games.
Today I began with anew alert, but previously conditioned RZ. Individually, training one dog at a time, I click and treat the dog to “nuzzle” my toy, I have two balls on a rope that we haven’t played with before. Click and reward that behavior, then “yay! Okay! Show me! Mat” And back on the mat we have the big reinforcement party. In these games, Bee to learn that the nuzzle is what gets me on my way to the RZ, I fade the old cues to go to the mat, but she heads to the mat anyway for a treat after nuzzling the toy. From here, all I need to do is elaborate on the conditions in which I am willing to play the game.
With hearing alerts, it’s too easy to ignore sounds that you can hear, but if you want your dog to alert to things you can’t hear, you’ve got to reinforce many times when you didn’t really need your dog’s hearing assistance. I want the dog to think, “oh maybe that’s one of those sound game things! I’ll show Mum! She rewards me when I let her know.” It’s really very similar to what happens when the dog thinks, “oh there’s that “I need to pee” sensation ! I’ll alert Mum because she rewards me when I let her know.”
The hard part about training any alert is that if you ignore the alerts, then alerting behavior is not reinforced and it goes away. The good news is if you don’t open the door when the dog scratches at it, he’ll stop scratching at it. But he still might pee on the floor. So what alert behavior do you want to reinforce? Ultimately, we want the natural dog’s sensory awareness (I need to pee! Or, I hear a funny noise! Or, I smell something!) to cue an alert behavior and set off your reinforcement machine. Subtle body language might be all you need to understand that he is alerting you to his need to go outside, but if you want him to alert with bigger behavior, you need to condition bigger alerts. If he pulls at your sleeve, or nudges your toy, click and treat that behavior and then further reinforce it by bringing him to a RZ . Never ignore that special nuzzle. The alert becomes the dog’s way of cueing you into a RZ operation!