In this episode we discuss:

  • When you might outsource maintenance to the environment?
  • Functional difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcers in maintaining behaviors.
  • How easy it is for behaviors to start slipping before we notice.
  • One way to avoid or minimize that slippage is to design a rotation.
  • Start by grabbing some behaviors or exercises that matter to you.
  • Then give yourself a time frame to rotate through those behaviors (I usually use a 2 week block).
  • Starting with your item at the top of the rotation for today:
    1. Do a test run for the purposes of seeing where you’re at
    2. Identify either something that is weak now that you are looking at it.
    3. OR a way you could do something differently
    4. Make yourself a little session to work on that thing

Links mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Hannah: [00:00:00] The next trial, directed retrieve looks great, but now scent discrimination is falling apart. Okay, so you train for a week and you’ve fixed that one. You go back out and now your dog can’t do the down signal. He’s never seen you before in his life. Has he ever laid down? He doesn’t know. And it’s like every weekend, something else weird is falling apart.

And one of the big challenges of competing over time is figuring out a system that minimizes that effect so that you can get some consistency to your performance.

[Intro music]

Hey there, fellow training nerds! You’re listening to Drinking From The Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: [00:01:00] teacher, trainer, podcaster and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both available from

Also don’t forget: the next round of Zero to CD, my online mentorship program, will open on Monday, April 24th with orientation for the new cohort on the following Monday, which is May 1st. This program always fills quickly, so if you’re interested, make sure to get on the email list to be notified. You can do that by going to, and you can also find out more about the program there.

So this week, we are talking about when behaviors are in maintenance mode or should be in maintenance mode. So I gotta be honest with you: I hate this topic. It really hurts my feelings. I don’t like thinking about it because I don’t like thinking about [00:02:00] things that I’m not very good at. It’s so much easier for me to start a new training project than maintain stuff that I’ve already trained. Like I’m exactly the sort of person who would way rather repaint the kitchen than empty the dishwasher. In fact, as I’m recording this right now, my dishwasher is full of clean dishes, still full of clean dishes and we haven’t even talked about the basket of clean laundry that continues to actively resist being put away. It’s working against me. It just sits in my bedroom and mocks me. And it turns out that no amount of just wishing that I could be a different person solves that.

So let’s talk about maintenance mode.

Before we get into that, I do wanna let you know that this episode is supported by the MET Conference and awesome patrons like Ada C, Sarah H and Rayanne S, [00:03:00] who are fabulous people, both individually and as a group supporting this podcast. If you’d like to support the podcast, get your questions answered, get access to some super secret extra podcast episodes, you can go to, and of course, for both this or Zero to CD, you can always follow the links in the show notes.

Okay. As much as I hate it, we do need to talk about the maintenance of training. So I’m not going to try to directly address the issue of motivation here – the difference between maintaining things versus starting a shiny new project. Mainly because I don’t have an answer. I don’t have an answer in any area of my life.

But! What I do know is that, for me, a shiny new system for maintenance often fills the gap a little bit.

And I also know that anything that I can do to make a task cognitively easier for [00:04:00] myself by breaking it down tends to mean that I don’t need nearly as much motivation as I would have otherwise. So I can more easily get things done more often with less sadness. It’s like, “Do I need more horsepower in the engine to get over the hill, or could I make the hill smaller?” Okay, I’m not a car person, so I’m not entirely sure if that metaphor works, but let’s pretend that it does. So, mostly this episode is me exploring what we can maybe do about the hill rather than trying to build a bigger engine or something. I don’t know. If you have answers to that one, let me know.

So the first thing that crossed my mind when I was thinking about this is, “Well, let’s outsource this crap.” Right? Thinking about it, not all behaviors require the same amount of maintenance work to keep up, and those behaviors that require the least maintenance are ones that we would probably consider to be reinforced intrinsically or [00:05:00] have intrinsic reinforcement.

And by that I mean that the outcome of the behavior is directly supported by the change in the environment without me having to intervene in any way. I can do nothing. I don’t even necessarily have to be there. So the most obvious example of that would be housebreaking, right? Like unless something– until or unless something changes biologically for the dog or the conditions change, once my puppies have established the pattern of going outside to pee, I don’t have to do anything. That’s maintained by the environment. So all I have to do is open the door, make sure that they have the opportunity and they all go out. Of course, conditions can change as they get older. There could be cognitive changes, kidney failure, certainly a urinary tract infection – there’s lots of reasons why that behavior may [00:06:00] change, but it’s not lack of reinforcement. That’s built into the environment. Again, I don’t have to intervene.

So that’s easy! Great! I would like all my behaviors to be this way. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. And in fact, a lot of the behaviors that I care the most about (outside of housebreaking) are ones where I’m actively fighting the environment and the reinforcers there.

But I do think it was worth bringing up, because anywhere that I can figure out a way to use a direct behavior substitution kind of strategy, where whatever in the environment that was reinforcing the behavior that I didn’t like, that I wanted to replace, is also gonna support the new behavior. That’s awesome. That’s phenomenal. Then again, as long as conditions don’t change, the environment’s gonna support my training. I don’t have to work that hard. That’s fantastic. For some of my dogs, the reactive– like stuff that I’ve done to work on [00:07:00] barking behaviors (we’ll call it “reactivity” as a larger label) that I didn’t like and I wanted to change that. I wanted to replace it with something else. So, you know, maybe look at me, maybe walking, maybe turning your head away. Those behaviors often don’t require a ton of direct maintenance after the fact.

Now I could make a story – I would’ve to test this to know for sure – but probably at least in part because if the initial motivation for the lunging and barking was getting the other dog to go away and turning your head and continuing to walk also has the same outcome, then that behavior is likely to be maintained. There could be other things going on as well, but potentially could fit here as an example.

In fact, really for the most part, the environment tends to be a lot more consistent about both timing and delivery of reinforcement than I am, which is why those behaviors where the [00:08:00] outcome is already built in – those are fantastic and I don’t have to do much about it. I mean, most of our behaviors and our dog’s behaviors, nobody has to be involved in because the outcomes are already embedded in the environment. We just go around behaving. That is in fact what behavior is for.

But for a lot of the applications that we would specifically think of as dog training, certainly anything in the sport world, but also there’s stuff around the house as well, we are involved in that reinforcement process. And in fact, we may be– I mean, we are functioning as part of the environment for the dog and a lot of the behaviors that we want, we are involved in in some way.

So a lot of my examples come from my experience training for sports, but I’m sure you can think of some examples for lifestyle behaviors. I mean, one would be something like loose leash walking, which could potentially– Well, you know what, I’m gonna take that back. What I was about to say was that you could consider loose leash [00:09:00] walking to have that intrinsic reinforcement quality to it. But then it occurred to me that I’m still the one who has to be controlling whether or not the behavior that I want with my dog on leash is what’s getting reinforced or is something else like pulling, is that being reinforced? What I was originally thinking when I put this bullet point down on my outline was that I initially do train loose leash walking with food rewards usually but then really quickly move on to either continued walking or access to things in the environment as the reinforcers that are maintaining that behavior. So after the first, I don’t know, year, I’m very rarely rewarding loose leash walking with food until and unless conditions change. But in the conditions that I have trained and in other conditions, which are close enough to that, I really don’t reward with food anymore when I go out for a [00:10:00] run. With my current dogs, I don’t take food. I haven’t taken food in quite a while and their leash manners are fantastic. We just keep walking, but I’m a big piece of that equation there and certainly if I were to be less skilled, less consistent, I could very easily undo the looseness-walking (Looseness? Loose leash. The looseness of our loose leash walking!) and accidentally reinforce the pulling. And I’ll be right back where I started because I’m still the center of that. My behavior controls the reinforcement or access to.

Okay, so that one doesn’t really fit. That’s always kind of a gray area there. Right? So we really kind of separate that out and that’s actually probably something that’s worth thinking about.

We’re gonna have to go with this one. This one is [00:11:00] a sort of behavior where, since I am absolutely a big part of that, the outcome that I experienced from my dog’s behavior is absolutely my fault or my responsibility. It’s nobody’s fault.

So I may need a plan to maintain that. Alright. But what are some of the things that make maintenance of the behaviors harder or like, again, separately from the motivation to work on it, but why does it need work? And how do we get in trouble around that?

And I think a big part of that – or at least I’ve run into trouble in this topic area – is that I don’t always notice when a behavior is slipping, when it’s breaking down, until it’s like really good and broken. And then I notice it because it’s overt. Most of the time that that’s not when the actual breaking started, right? Like there were cracks, there was slippage, way before then, and I just didn’t see it. And there are a couple of [00:12:00] reasons why I might not see it, but most of it is I just cannot be a hundred percent focused, like my very best dog trainer self 24/7. And I live with my dogs 24/7. And even if we’re talking about just like the behaviors that are specific to the sports that I like to play in with my dogs, I still can’t have my eye on every single criteria all the time. So while I’m focused on one thing, something else is possibly going to be slipping. And if it’s short duration, like there’s a lot of things that I’m not gonna be able to notice. Video helps me a little bit with that because I can look back at a training session and catch something that maybe I wasn’t able to recognize in the moment, but even then, I might not see it until it gets pretty big.

So waiting for something to break and then having to have a whole training plan to fix it gets very overwhelming very quickly and it feels like you’re playing whack-a-mole all the time.

And I do think that some of that is [00:13:00] because– I’m thinking about my friend Emelie’s quote, “Your expectations tend to interfere with your observations.” That wasn’t her quote, that was me paraphrasing it. But we do tend to see what we expect to see until it gets– it has to be something really big to knock us out of those expectations.

And so we’re not gonna notice those small changes because we are continuing to see what we expect. So we don’t see until it’s outta control and that’s well past when we should have made changes if we wanted to maintain the behavior the way that it was already.

So in The Before Time, before these unprecedented events, in The Before Time when I was actively campaigning my dogs in competitive obedience. I was actively seeking out points in the B classes, the highest levels of competition. At that point in Open and Utility, the two classes you’re competing in at [00:14:00] that level, you have pretty much the same exercises every time. I mean, you do have the same exercises every time. The order can change and occasionally they do change the rules and so you have other things to train for and certainly the environmental conditions can change, but for the most part, you’re looking at the same exercises every weekend that you go out.

And yet, even with that, and this is particularly noticeable in Utility– Utility is the third layer of competition but then you continue to compete in those exercises after you earn that Utility title.

And of those exercises, you have heeling, you have a signals exercise where the dog changes position on just a hand signal from a distance, you have– gosh, what else do we have in there? We have a moving stand for exam where you leave the dog on a stand and the judge comes in and does sort of a little physical exam while you’re, again, at a distance, and you have to call your dog back to heel. There’s the directed retrieve where you have to send your dog to retrieve one of three identical [00:15:00] gloves. We have the scent discrimination exercise where they have to find the object you’ve scented among identical objects that someone else has scented. Let’s see. Directed jumping. I don’t think I mentioned that one. You have to send them out. I’m probably forgetting something else.

But the point is, you have this number of really fairly complex exercises that are all performed as a chain. I certainly experience this and I think it’s a fairly common phenomenon, that it feels like, particularly in Utility, that whack-a-mole feeling is just really profound. You go out one weekend and you nail the signals, everything’s great, but oh my gosh, outta nowhere, the directed retrieve falls apart. So you go home that week, you work on the directed retrieve. You go out the next trial, directed retrieve looks great, but now scent discrimination is falling apart. Okay, so you train for a week, you’ve fixed that, when you go back out and now your dog can’t do the down signal. He’s never seen you before in his life. Has he ever laid down? He doesn’t know. And it’s like every weekend [00:16:00] something else weird is falling apart. And one of the big challenges of competing at that level over time is figuring out a system that minimizes that effect so that you can get some consistency to your performance. Otherwise, it gets really expensive, really fast.

And so some of the things that I learned there, I found I can also apply to other areas of my training. I could probably apply them to other areas of my life, but let’s not go too crazy!

But what I found was, one of the mistakes was that I couldn’t like just put all of heeling on a shelf and focus just on what has most recently broken, because that’s the sure recipe for something different to break next time, because of course the heeling – if that was what was to break next time – wasn’t as strong previously as I had thought that it was. My expectations interfered in my observations. I didn’t see it or I didn’t see it because [00:17:00] whatever the other thing was that was absolutely on fire was eclipsing any little cracks that were showing in the heeling. So I couldn’t wait for it to fall apart and I certainly couldn’t ignore everything that I thought was pretty good to just focus on the things that were falling apart.

And that’s where I really needed a system. I needed a system that wasn’t dependent on me noticing that something was breaking. And what I had the most success with was designing a little rotation for myself.

Now, this rotation has taken a couple of different forms at different times because again, one of the ways that I address my own motivational gaps is looking for shiny new systems. So it can take different forms. I’ve done things with post-it notes, obviously whiteboards, post-it notes and whiteboards. I mean, there’s all kinds. But the idea is that there’s an automatic rotation that I already have set up. So whether or not the retrieve has broken recently, this week I’m gonna focus on retrieve related tasks and then next week I’m gonna focus on heeling related tasks. No matter how good or bad I [00:18:00] think my heeling was, I’m gonna do that. So every arbitrary period of time, I’m cycling through all of the exercises (or could be categorized in other ways) but every couple of weeks – I usually work over the two week cycle – so with every two weeks, I’m at least touching on all of the exercises and I’ve decided that in advance. And so I’m just separating the cue for what I’m gonna work on for myself, for my own behavior, from the dog’s performance to a degree.

So that’s my first or biggest piece of advice for how to address this, assuming that you have to be involved in the maintenance of the behavior and the reinforcement process.

[Sponsor break]

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[Episode resumes]

So, what to put in your rotation. You could put really anything on here that you care about. And I used to get real tangled up in trying to identify exactly what to put in the rotation. Like how big should my categories be? What exactly should they look like? And again, I found a tremendous amount of freedom by letting that go. And it turns out that I’m going to get– well, I mean, this is probably really surprising for you, but it turns out that doing training at all is better than being completely paralyzed. And while being completely paralyzed with exactly what to write on my whiteboard, I was not doing any training. So putting anything on the whiteboard is better than nothing. Hmm. I know. I don’t like that. But anyways. But it’s the way it goes.

So the boxes can be very big or they can be quite small. Like from just looking at obedience, my obedience boxes could really be as large as the whole exercise. And then as I got through that, I realized that, “Oh, actually I [00:21:00] could have other separate boxes,” and I would add boxes to that. So I think there’s a lot of benefit in starting with really big boxes. Like I would have heeling, I would have signals exercise, I would just go exercise by exercise because that’s a real cheap-and-dirty way to get out of it. And you know what? It worked better than what I was doing before, which was just putting out fires. And so from there I added one for transitions, but it turns out there are some specific transitions that I wanna work on. And then it turns out that, “Oh, I need to work on like these specific categories of distractions.” And so I went from the larger boxes to the smaller boxes to smaller boxes. And I would at times– and this is the other thing: they don’t all have to match. So I could have something that I was putting in rotation that was really very specific next to something that was really quite general. So like stand for exam, I usually didn’t break down very much more than that. That was the main one. Whereas signals exercise may have five boxes for it, like one for heeling and then also [00:22:00] the actual position changes. And then also like some of the distraction-y things, the proofing that I was doing there to make them stronger.

And I go back and forth. I will often have zen bowl as a– because that’s a tool that I use a lot for a lot of reasons. That would be its own category. Something that I would rotate through to make sure. It’s just things I wanted to make sure to touch on ultimately. “This is something I wanna make sure that I hit in the next two weeks.” I’m gonna throw that on my rotation.

Okay. So you can decide what that looks like for you. Probably something that’s relevant for a lot of us is anything around handling, grooming, husbandry type stuff. That’s things that I need to maintain because at some point I’m gonna have to trim my dog’s nails. I’m still rocking my occasional one nail at a time strategy that I talked about recently. But they do need brushing occasionally. They’re going to need bathing. Figment in particular is no longer a blue merle. He’s almost– he’s the same color as Rugby for the most part, [00:23:00] except for like a spot in the middle of his head. We’ve had so much rain. The mud is terrible, so he’s gonna need a bath. And so we need to maintain that training. With all of that kind of handling, grooming, husbandry stuff, waiting until it’s an emergency, waiting until your dog has rolled in goose shit? That is not at the time to deal with your dog’s behavior in the bath situation. So we gotta maintain that. So that’s something that definitely goes in rotation. And when I am my best self, that’s one that I keep in rotation as well.

If you’re not sure even where to start, you cannot go wrong with putting maintenance of your reinforcement procedures on that list. In fact, if you were to do nothing else but put maintenance of your reinforcement procedures in your rotation, like your entire rotation was reinforcement procedures, and then the rest of the time was you putting out fires or chasing whatever interesting training project you’ve seen on YouTube or TikTok, you’re still gonna be better off. That’s probably one of the first places that we [00:24:00] overlook. You don’t notice that you are rushing your dog to let go of the toy a little bit. You don’t notice that your dog is moving towards your hand before you mark. You don’t notice those things. But when you pull those out, put them in rotation and now you take a look at ’em, hmmmm. Okay. Now you can catch those.

Which brings me to kind of step one. So once you’ve got your rotation– Orat least step one within the rotation. So once you have a starting list of things you’re gonna rotate through, the first step is, I gotta break through that whole expectations/observations problem. Now, the way I usually do this is that I’ll do a real quick test run to collect some data. And again, depending on what my project is, what my training category is here, that can look like different things.

Safety first, of course, but in a very safe example, I might do the signals exercise and take a look at what I’ve got. This is intended to be a test run. I am poking it with a stick so that I can see what I need to work on. Only way for me to do that [00:25:00] is for me to look at it.

Now I could do that kind of retrospectively by looking at video from previous performance, if that’s available, but it isn’t always. And in which case I’ll just try one out. When I do that, I try to be as, as “real” as I can and the only thing different is my eyes. I’m trying to be more observant. And again, video as much as possible really helps because I can go back and look at that. The simple act of observing a thing is going to change it. So we acknowledge that, but it is as close as we can get.

And then I want to, from there, identify either something about that that is weak now that I’m looking at it. So maybe I’ve noticed, “Oh, that left turn isn’t quite as sharp as I would like for it to be or isn’t sharp as it used to be.” Okay. Now that I’m noticing it, I can pull that out. [00:26:00]

One that I’ve caught before, more than once, within that zen bowl category to be specific– Zen bowl is really a reinforcement strategy and that’s why I included it as its own thing, like maintaining those reinforcement procedures. You cannot overdo that. The stronger your reinforcement procedures, the stronger your training’s gonna be. Okay. But that’s a soapbox I spend– I don’t spend enough time on it. But you may also think that I spend too much time on it.

But one that I’ve gotten before is either I am anticipating my cue to send the dog to the zen bowl such that there’s something I’m doing usually physically with my body, turning my own head or moving my hand, or I’ll stop moving like if we’re heeling, I stop my feet. And so then that change in my behavior becomes the new cue to send my dog to the zen bowl, but I don’t realize it. I still think it’s the verbal cue. My dog, of course, being not stupid, catches that, “Oh, she stops her feet and she’s gonna send me to the [00:27:00] bowl! Or she moves her hand this way cause she’s about to do a hand target and send me to the bowl! I’ll just– I won’t wait for that old hand target. I’ll go onto the bowl!”

And/or, it can be as simple as – and I usually only see this on video – my dog’s eyes cutting and even leaning slightly towards the bowl before I’ve given the cue, which those things often come together. Often what we would call anticipation of a cue is really your dog – and by your dog, I mean my dog – responding to a cue transfer that you did not know you had trained. So the intake of breath before you give a cue is a really common one. We call that anticipation because it’s a very human-centric way of looking at behavior, but really your dog is responding to the cue that you’ve trained; it’s just not the cue you thought you were training or you intend to train.

So I always look out for that and that’s one that I’ve caught before in this rotation. And then I can fix it before it totally falls apart and the dog is “out of the blue” leaving me to go steal food from the bowl. [00:28:00] He’s not “out of the blue.” He’s not “stealing.” He’s responding to a different cue, just not the one that I thought.

So I can look for something that’s weak, that’s pre-breaking-down, so I can address that. Or if I don’t catch anything there, I look for a way that I could do something differently than what I’m already doing. And so here I’m thinking what would “different every day” or “different, but not harder” (those are two things I reference a lot), what might that look like here? Could I change something like– Say I just did the whole signals exercise and the whole thing looked perfect. Okay, great. Could I do it [blank]? Pick a random thing. But this is one of those places where it doesn’t matter. But when I’m fighting perfectionism, like the least helpful thing is, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Just pick something.” Ah, it does not make it easier for me to pick! Okay, I don’t wanna make decisions. But like put a hat on, you know? It doesn’t have to be creative or fancy. Put a hat on, take your shoes off. [00:29:00] If you don’t wear any shoes, put your shoes on. Put a coat on, take your coat off. I already said hat. That’s as far as I’ve gotten to– or just do it in a different room. I often will have a few go-tos, like putting a hat on. I put a hat on a lot as just like a cheap way to– That’s exactly what I did this morning, which is why it’s fresh in my mind to put a hat on for training. So it doesn’t have to be harder, it doesn’t have to do anything, but just changes it just a little bit.

Oh, well, the other one that I do a lot is I change the reinforcer. Can I do exactly this, but with a different reinforcer? And then what might that training session look like? It could be as simple as I’m going to use cheese instead of the kibble, or it could be toy versus food, could be zen bowl because I just fixed it last week so it was in my rotation, it could be a different kind of food, it could be throwing the food instead of handing it to your dog, it could be handing it instead of throwing it. There’s a lot of different ways that you could do “different but not harder” here.

And that’s a good way to maintain the behavior if it’s not currently [00:30:00] breaking. You can’t figure out– You looked real hard, you looked at it with the microscope and there are no cracks, looks fantastic, great. Let’s do something a little bit different because you don’t need to break it. So do something a little bit different but not harder. And that’ll make you a stronger, better behavior in the future.

So then that’s the last part there. You just design yourself a little session to work on that thing. It’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna work on about turns. About turns were the weakest part of that heeling pattern. How did I originally teach about turns? Okay, so I’m gonna revisit those steps. What did that look like?” And a lot of times it’s this sort of iterative process where I’m circling closer and closer. So, okay, my about turn was the weakest link in that whole larger heeling pattern. Now as I’m going through the steps that I originally used to teach my about turn, I started with pairing the cue of the way my body moves before I’m about to change direction to go the other direction with a hand target. Does that look the way that it normally does? Is my footwork the way that I think that it is? I go through those [00:31:00] steps just as if I was teaching a real quick review. And a lot of times I’ll identify, “Oh, right there! It’s step three in that progression that doesn’t look quite as strong as I had thought it was. And now, okay, I can work on just that step.” And then I can ping-pong between step two, step three, step four. Maybe I even need like a step 3.5 to split it. Great now we’re off and running. And then I might put it back in, do chaining, sequencing, something like that, to polish it off. But the session might look like different things depending on what you’ve decided to focus on in that moment.

But it should be a training session, not just a, “I’m gonna repeat the same thing session” because that’s not maintenance. Maintenance isn’t just repeating it. Ooh. That was another– I didn’t have that in my outline at all, but that was another lesson that I learned with trying to maintain a high level of performance over time, is just doing the thing over and over again isn’t effective maintenance. That’s actually the recipe for breaking it down. And it is, in fact, probably how I broke most things, was just repeating the whole thing. Because the bigger the chunk you’re looking at, the hard it is to see [00:32:00] those little cracks, which are the ones that need to be maintained.

So the session that you design based on the outcome of following these little stages of the shiny new system, it should look like a training session designed to teach something, not just repeat something. Okay?

So again, if you’re not sure what categories you need or like what to put on your rotation, start with your reinforcement procedures. Identify, “Okay, I’ve got my zen bowl, I have tugging, so tug/out/tug, I have being able to throw a toy, I have being able to throw food. I do that one a lot when I don’t know what else to do. Being able to throw food, be able to feed food in heel position, be able to feed food in front. Um, be able to room service, bring the food to the dog. That’s a good one. Take out, dog comes to my hand for the treat.

So you have your own list of reinforcement procedures, so that would be a really good starting point. So I hope that’s helpful!

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