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Ask Nancy: Variable Reward Training

April 23, 2010

Variable Reward Training to keep training interesting for the dog

Mostly today trainers talk about using food lures and rewards for putting in behaviors and perfecting them. This method works pretty well if you know how to use it correctly but there is often a bit of info left out on how to keep your dog interested in the rewards you are handing out.

Picture you are being trained to do something and as a reward you get a piece of dry cereal. Stop and think how much of a reward that is and how quickly you might get bored with it particularly if you were not hungry.

Now you know if you do the behavior you will get a bit of cereal but then something more interesting comes along. At that point your attention will waver and no amount of cereal waving will likely be enough to hold your attention. But what if at that point the reward changed to chocolate? Or peanuts? Or ice-cream? Or steak?

So lets consider how to get around that ‘boredom with rewards’ issue when training dogs.

The key is to figure out what your dog wants….

It’s pretty simple to make up a bag of variable treats when working on training. Two or three kinds of high quality kibble (dry dog foods) that are not the same as what your dog gets during meals, mixed in with some small bits of really high value treats such as freeze dried liver, chicken, jerky, lamb lung or possibly even a second bag with cheese or real meat bits diced small.

For ordinary ‘ok’ responses from the dog, during training, they get a bit of the kibble, but for a great response, or a response under more than usual stress (for example a sit when a dog or person approaches) the bigger rewards come out and a better, or more valued treat is offered. You can even do a jackpot of a mixed handful of goodies when the dog performs extremely well. Of course if the dog doesn’t meet minimum standards for the behavior, and those standards can be raised as time goes on, then no reward is forthcoming.

So you say you never use food to train but instead you use toys. You can make some toys more valuable than others by presenting them less frequently and spending time playing with them in front of the dog yourself and then putting them away in a pocket. Breed ring training of terriers is often done like that. To get a moment of play with the real fur squeaky rat for a terrier is an ultimate reward even though playing with a fake fur toy is also fun. Or getting swung around on a tug rope with a solid game of tug might be a top reward for a dog too.

The key is to figure out what your dog wants and then how to give a variable amount of that reward depending on how good a performance of the desired behavior the dog gives you.

Keep training interesting by keeping the reward for right behavior interesting and being sure to give a super reward or jackpot when your dog does something perfectly or performs when stressors might have easily caused failure to follow the command instead.

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