Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior. This is the techie name for a technique which pretty much adds up to “Do this instead of that.” Sometimes, simply called an “alternate behavior”, DRI is a powerful tool to have in your training arsenal. Rather than punishing inappropriate behaviors, why not train an alternative, appropriate behavior?
DRI is particularly useful for common problem behaviors like watchdog barking, jumping, attention-seeking, begging, etc. It can also be used as an alternative to desensitization and counterconditioning, while giving you the amazing side effect of a dog who checks in with you, instead of a dog who reacts to stimuli that may be sudden and intense. With practice, this can be an effective way to reduce problem behaviors, such as lunging and barking on-leash and your dog learns that checking in with you is more rewarding than reacting to other stimuli. In some cases, this can be novel, inanimate objects or things like barking dogs in the distance, or people appearing seemingly out of nowhere. It can buy you time and eventually, your dog learns to do the check-in without any sort of prompt. And when that happens, it’s truly a beautiful thing- you get a wonderful classically conditioned side effect! Pavlov will be on your shoulder!
You can use a number of cues to build a DRI, and we like to use “Watch Me” and “Touch”, in addition to using the basics like sit and down. Both “Watch Me” and “Touch” serve as great re-direction cues, but need to be installed out of the problem context before being brought into the real world. When working in real world scenarios, you need to be sure that your dog already has the cue on board and you may need to use some prompting to get his/her attention. You can use kissy noises to help draw your dog’s attention to you and once your dog is focused on you, give the cue. In Hazel’s case, when using DRI outside, she offers a default sit, which is also a nice side effect, as it generally allows me to hold her attention a little bit longer.
“Watch Me” can be built by holding a treat near your eyes and rewarding your dog when he makes eye contact. You’ll eventually add the cue words, which will allow you to use it in your real world context. You’ll eventually fade the food from the hand near your eyes and reward from your pocket or bait pouch. It’s important to mark the eye contact in some way, either through a marker word, like “Yes!” or with a clicker, so that your dog understands the reward (reinforcer) is being given for the specific behavior of making eye contact.
Modified K9 has a great blog post on the “Touch” cue:
We call DRI “The Dog Trainer’s Friend” because it can generally be easier to install than using desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC), though there are certainly situations in which those techniques are more appropriate, such as in the case of a dog for whom stimuli can become intense very quickly and put the dog over threshold. In cases like that, you want to work slowly and remember that the goal is to change the underlying emotion, rather than just re-directing your dog. With DRI, you get the benefit of a dog who performs a desired behavior that prevents the undesired behavior- but there is a contingency- the dog must perform the desired behavior in order to earn reinforcement. In DS/CC, there is no contingency and we work directly on pairing the scary or upsetting stimuli with something the dog likes (typically super high value food) to change the underlying emotion, such as anxiety or fear. Knowing the difference and when each is indicated will help you set your dog up for success.
DRI is a fantastic way to help eliminate problem behaviors by training in something that is mutually incompatible. It really is as simple as teaching your dog a more appropriate behavior. Sit instead of jumping, focus on me instead of barking, maintain a down-stay rather than begging at the table. When we think in terms of what we would like to see our dogs do, instead of what we don’t want them to do, we start to see solutions where previously we only saw problems. Give it a try! Good luck!