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.

The power of the reward

The reward has to be good enough, as far as your dog is concerned.  

As a long time positive dog trainer I know all too well how powerful a good reward is to a dog.  That is, if the reward is something that the dog desires.  Not all dogs are motivated by food; some are motivated by a ball, frisbee, tug toy or favorite stuffed toy.  The secret to rewarding a behavior is to offer your dog something worth working for.  Food tends to be the "go to" reward; and if it works then it is easy to carry around.  That said, there is a big difference in the value of each food reward.  If a food does not have enough value, it's not going to work.  Too much value and your dog is not even going to be able to think.  

Reward - something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit

Watching your dog's behavior closely will let you know how the reward is working.  Many times we have had to downgrade to a lower value item of food when training.  It all depends on the dog; that is the most important thing to remember.  

Tilley loved food but she was also a timid girl and would become more so in the presence of strangers.  Food rewards worked great when we were alone; at home or even out in a park but not around a lot of people that she didn't know.  But, if I pulled out a ball or frisbee, that all changed; she became Miss Outgoing and worked for the catch.  It was truly an amazing tool for transforming her very state of being in certain situations. This worked so amazingly because Tilley loved nothing more than catching.  Food was great but in high stress situations (which is different for every dog, blog later this week) it was not enough to pull her out.  With a ball in hand Tilley became someone else; a dog that many people didn't even recognize as the timid little demur girl they had come to know.   
When using a reward system to teach a dog; you must use an appropriate level of reward.  That means that if you are teaching a new behavior in your living room and there are no distractions then use the least value treat.  You want to make sure that it has enough value that your dog will work for it; but don't use over valued items.   You need to save high value rewards for the really hard stuff  Your dog may work for cheerios in the house but not out of the house.  If you are using food rewards then you should have a variety of different value level rewards at hand.  

If you are using a toy of some sort; whether it is a ball, tug toy, stuffed or disc; you need a variety as well.  Variety in toy rewards can be achieved by the use of different items which hold a variance of value levels; or it can be a difference in the use of one item.  Elsa's very favorite toy is her squeaky kong ball; she will literally do anything for one.  A low level reward with the ball could simply be passing it to her; allowing her to take it into her mouth.  Higher would be a small toss in the air; higher reward would be a bounce catch.   The highest for her would be a distance toss of the ball.  

Rewards are powerful; it is amazing how quickly a dog can learn when rewarded.  But with reward comes control; you cannot dish out rewards willy nilly style.  You must use them according; if you overuse them you will actually diminish your training results.  Rewards are used to teach, proof and be weaned off quickly.  Depending on the behavior will factor in how long you keep the reward system around.  I consider some behaviors, like the "come" as extended high reward ones.  Again it all depends on the dog, the behavior and the environmental situation.  

Rewards are just that, a reward for a behavior accomplished successfully.  Rewards are not bribes.  You can use a low level reward to assist in a maneuver if needed but, it is very quickly removed as the object to follow.  There is a great deal to know about properly training; it is easy to make huge mistakes that can take a great deal of work to undo.  In dog training, less is more.  Less words, less movement and less rewards.  Save the greatest payoff in rewards for the phenomenal stuff.