reward system

Training and treating

Full attention

Congratulations, you have a new dog. You’ve done your research and decided that you are going with positive training. First, good for you; your dog will thank you for it. There is much to know about positive reinforcement training; the first and most important part is timing. Timing of the delivery of the reward, be what it may. Timing will be saved for another blog; today I’m discussing the actual treats or rewards. What do you use when?

The difference between the results of using a low value versus a high value treat can be amazing. Low value treats are used around the house when you want to say “yes, that is what I like.” High value rewards are used for difficult times, big distractions or major attention requirements.

Just the other day I took Riggs to a favorite walk destination where Elsa and I have frequented over the years. It is a marina/harbor on the coast. Dana Point Harbor is beautiful and a must see for anyone visiting from out of town. The walkways through the yachts, pelicans, squirrels and turquoise water is a hot spot for folks walking with or without a dog; and is a great place to get in some quality life experience.

Recently on some of my “live” sessions on FB I have explained how walking Riggs is very much like walking a kite. Well, that’s the best way that I can describe it so I knew that I’d need to up the value of my treats if I’d want some attention in such a high stimulus area. Armed with a full pouch of ground turkey and beef we head to the harbor. Yep, messy, messy.

The difference was incredible. As soon as the first piece of beef/turkey was delivered I had Riggs’s undivided attention. The contrast between low value and high value was remarkable. In fact I had to lower the value at times during our walk so that he could experience everything around him. When I needed undivided attention, I got it.

But positive reinforcement is not all about food; it is about incorporating whatever motivates a dog. I use a great number of reinforcers - tug toys, balls, catching , a squeaker, whistle etc. You need to know what motivates your dog.

If it is food then you need to dish out the rewards appropriately. That means that they need to have the right amount of value for the moment. Too little and they are useless; too high and the dog cannot even think straight. It is a juggling act.

Value - relative worth, merit, or importance: the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange.

It’s not what we consider to be valuable; it is entirely up to our dogs on what is valuable. This is why it is essential to know your dog. Or to have a trainer who can very quickly discover what motivates your dog.

Motivation - something that motivates, inducement; incentive:

If you aren’t sure what you are doing, hire a trainer. Buy a great book or schedule and online consultation for extra help or some questions that you might have concerning the whole “reward system” of positive reinforcement training.

Now, go train your dog.

Pay for performance

Don't you hate when you pay a lot of money for something and are let down by lack of performance.  It could be a great meal that you were expecting, a grand performance on screen or stage or even service somewhere or at your home.  It sucks when you have high standards; pay for it, and are let down.  No one likes to pay good money for a job poorly done.  There are of course those who don't like to pay for a job well done either; it's their money and they don't want to part with it.   Great service or performance should be paid for.  

I say, pay for performance.  In the canine world, that means rewarding a job well done.  That said, you don't want to become a human pez dispenser who just pops out treats for anything and everything.  What happens when you reward everything is that you create a "show me the money," scenario.   Got nothing to bribe a behavior with?  Forget asking.  This is not the way it is suppose to work.  Once a dog understands a behavior and is reliable at offering it, you wean the treats.  When a behavior is more difficult to perform; say in a high distraction area, save the treats for then. 

Not everything has to be rewarded by food.  The other day as Elsa and I walked down a shopping area; we stumbled upon a nice big plate of Mexican food that someone had dumped.  Elsa's nose is always going so she knew it was there far before I ever saw it.  She nosed over towards it and I told her to "leave it."  She immediately turned away and we continued our walk.  I did not food reward her but gushed at how amazing she was.  Had this been a couple of years ago, I would have rewarded with food.  Leave the food, get a food reward.  But leaving it is expected of her now.

When you expect above and beyond performance; meaning something that is really tough, grueling or requiring expertise, you need to pay for it.  That means either with a really great food reward or acknowledgment in a big way.  The more difficult something is, I like to resort to real pay, like food.  Leaving the food on the sidewalk was easy for Elsa.  The leave it behavior was ingrained in her at a very young age.  

Paying for performance is essential.  But even the little things should always get a "thank you."  Every single thing that I ask for is acknowledged when obliged.  Throughout my day you can hear me say "thank you," over and over and over again.  I do not like to see guardians ask for a behavior; have it performed by their dog and that's it, nothing said.  Our dogs don't have to listen to us; but if you have worked hard at creating a relationship and educated your dog; then you should thank them for obliging you.  

Thank you, always.  Pay, for high performance.