Is the end-of-session signal beneficial or harmful? Should trainers use it or not? At the Penn Vet Working Dog Conference last month I got into a debate with a group of search-and-rescue trainers about the end-of-session signal. It was a spirited discussion.
It’s important to note that the “end–of-session” signal does not appear in the scientific literature. Rather, it is a practical device that emerged in the training community. Simply put, an end-of-session signal is intended to mean any deliberate, predictable cue that informs the animal that the training session is over. There is no consistent method of applying this tool, and a discussion of its merits and drawbacks depends on how it’s being used.
After a stressful or difficult work session, trainers sometimes give an animal an “all-done” signal. Trainers who do this explain that it serves as a reinforcer, signaling a break in the strenuous activity as well as an opportunity to rest.
Many working dogs, especially guide dogs and certain service dogs, are focused on specific tasks for lengthy periods of time. Trainers teach an “at-ease” signal that indicates to the animal that it no longer needs to be actively working, until cued to re-engage. For example, when the handler and dog arrive at a restaurant and the handler sits at a table, she will cue the dog to settle. This is sometimes considered an end-of-session signal.
Some trainers use an end-of-session signal because their dogs are so eager and attentive that they follow and watch the trainer after the session is over. Those trainers feel that an end-of-session signal gives clear information to their dogs; the signal means the dogs no longer need to pay attention and can do their own thing.
Some trainers argue that an end-of-session signal is unnecessary, and even detrimental. If the signal means that the session is over, it usually indicates that positive reinforcement is no longer available. By definition, the removal of the opportunity for positive reinforcement is a time–out, which is technically a negative punisher. A time-out at the end of a session punishes the last behavior or series of behaviors.
So is it a good or bad tool?
Before those of you who use an end-of-session signal panic, worrying that you have been punishing your dog, relax—that may not be the case. Let’s examine a few uses of an end-of-session signal and see how each has a different meaning to the animal.
Early in my career, before I learned about positive reinforcement, I worked in a traditional training program that used corrections. Under those circumstances, the end–of-session signal marked the end of stress and, thus, was probably a relief to the dog—serving as a negative reinforcer.
In my work with guide dogs, we taught the dogs to “settle” when we didn’t need them to actively guide their handler, as described above in the restaurant scenario. Many trainers refer to this “settle” cue as an end-of-session signal. But in my opinion, it’s simply a relaxed “stay”—just another behavior in the long sequence of tasks asked of a guide dog. As such, it is quite beneficial.
In my April letter (When Training Is Too Much Fun!), I wrote about Carson, a search-and-rescue dog that lost his alert behavior due to an inadvertent end-of-session signal. When the signal indicated, predictably, that it was time to go home, Carson was unintentionally punished. He enjoyed searching so much and was disappointed that the fun was ending.
This is what I think happens to trainers who use an “all-done” signal and always follow it by leaving for work or disappearing and leaving the dog alone. If a dog enjoys training, an end-of-session signal that is followed predictably by the trainer disappearing may be perceived as a very unpleasant and punishing experience.
Some trainers use an “all-done” signal when they finish training, and immediately follow it with a variety of options. The “all-done” may be followed by an opportunity to go outside, the chance to play with a new toy, the delivery of a long-lasting chewy treat, or the start of cuddle time on the couch. In these instances, the “all-done” signal is not an end to reinforcement, but is actually a cue to engage in a new reinforcing activity.
I used to work with a group of walruses, and at the conclusion of formal training we always provided them with clams, mussels, and other fun treats hidden in a mountain of ice. We cued the walruses when the opportunity to forage in the ice was available. Visiting trainers often thought it was an end-of-session signal, but we had trained it as a very positive reinforcing cue.
Because there is no prescribed way to use an end-of-session signal, and its uses are varied, it’s not possible to give the tool blanket praise or condemnation. Although the examples above may be referred to as end-of-session signals, that may be a misnomer. Each functions in a very different way.
Many trainers use an end-of-session signal without knowing it: taking off the pouch, showing your empty hands, walking away from the dog, or a final short rub. All of these activities can become punishing if we are not careful.
The use or lack of use of a so-called end-of-session signal is not a barometer that indicates good or bad training. What matters is how the signal is being used and, most importantly, how the learner responds. The best use of the end-of-session signal is when it fades the trainer out of the situation. The removal of the person is not punishing previous behaviors, but allows the reinforcement to run out naturally, as happens when the animal is cued to go play, or given a toy, or offered a treat puzzle.
Understand what you are reinforcing or punishing, and be poised to adjust what you are doing to make the dog successful. Observe your learner’s behavior when a session has ended; if he is relaxed and comfortable and behaving appropriately, there may be no need to change how you end your sessions. If, on the other hand, you see nervous, frustrated, or problem behavior that coincides with the session ending, you may want to examine how you conclude your sessions. Observe what your animal is learning and doing, and listen to what his body language and behavior are telling you. Our goals should be to give clear guidance and to set up our learners for success.