Hitting the Jackpot!
Do we really know what makes our dogs ‘tick’ and what treats they like the best? In order to get your dog working with you it is essential that he has enough motivation to engage in your chosen activity. Reinforcements (motivators) can vary depending on what you and your dog are doing at that given moment in time. Sometimes the payment needs to be a jackpot (a very high value reward) such as steak or chicken or at another time all you might need is a verbal reward such as praise. It is up to us, the humans, to be able to distinguish and choose the best payment option at that particular time. As a general rule you can use the guidelines of rewarding expected behaviours with verbal praise, behaviours offered which are above average with a reasonable reward and offering the highest value only for times of excellent behaviour.
So how can we select and work out what your Fido is really motivated by so you can give him the correct reward?
First of all make a list of about ten treats that you know you dog really likes and then gather the treats you would like to assess. Then take one of the treats in one hand, such as a piece of sausage, and a bit of cheese in the other. Close your hand and let your Fido sniff both hands to see what you have. Hold your hands away from each other. Your dog will probably be interested in one hand more than the other and ‘ta da’ this will give you an indicator of which one he prefers. Record the result and then continue to compare the ‘winning’ treat with the next one until you have a list of motivators – from least motivating to the best treat since sliced bread! Then you will be able to use this list to help in your training and keep the ‘payment’ interesting for your Fido.
So once you are able to vary the treats to keep your dog’s motivated you can also use another technique to help keep them excited and interested in the games you are playing. This is known as variable reinforcement. This simply means that your Fido will not know beforehand when he is going to receive a treat. Once your dog is performing a new behaviour reliably and has had the ‘lightbulb moment’ when learning a new trick/behaviour you can stop offering a treat for every single repetition. Then you begin rewarding your Fido every other time he gets it right. When Fido is getting the behaviour correctly around 80% of the time and is very reliable you can then begin giving a treat around 35% of the time. It is always worth keeping in mind that if you have asked your Fido to perform a task 3 times in a row and they have not been able to achieve this then the task has become too difficult and you just need to go back to the previous step. This will give your dog a chance to consolidate his learning plus keeping both you and your dog motivated instead of becoming frustrated with the task at hand.
In addition to this I also like to keep ‘special jackpots’. These are treats that are only used as a bonus payment when your dog has completed an amazing task. Jackpots do not have to be reward based – they can be toys or even an activity that your dog REALLY enjoys such as having a sniff in the field, playing in the water or playing with a favourite tennis ball.
Hope this helps and Happy Training