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The Rule of Rewards

"Ya Never Know What Yer Gonna Get!"


What is a reward?
Anything your dog wants badly enough to work to earn it.  Food, toys, a game with you!
Access to things the dog wants:  to go through a doorway, sniff a tree, or meet another dog. 


VARIETY is key.
*Food, games, toys, etc. A reward does not appear until AFTER the behavior. The reward is contingent on the dog offering the correct behavior cued by the trainer. The behavior drives the reward. When building a new behavior, you will reward each and every correct repetition until the dog is confident and the behavior is on cue. This is called a "fixed ratio" - 1 behavior : 1 reward. When the foundation is solid, you will move to a variable schedule - random reinforcement for successful behaviors at a predetermined level of performance.


What is a bribe? 

Bribing should be avoided. A bribe is offered BEFORE the behavior. "If you do "X" I will give you "Y". The dog then has the opportunity to decide if the reward is worth doing "X". Trainers often unknowingly reward refusal by pulling out a better offer when the dog fails to respond. Example: Dog doesn't respond to the come command, so the trainer pulls out a really GOOD reward and waves it around, hoping the dog will respond. Trainers who over-use lures long after the dog needs them, may accidently teach their dogs that the food in the hand is PART of the cue. These are the people who "can't get rid of the food."



See also: "Bribes vs Rewards" from Nancy Tucker: "Recently, someone remarked, "What? You STILL need to carry treats for your dog??" "Well, no. Of course I don't need to. But why on earth wouldn't I? During our walks, I can come across plenty of perfect opportunities to toss him a reward to let him know he's done something I liked."


What is a lure?
A lure is used to entice the dog into the desired physical position. It is a temporary phase of early training designed to "get" the behavior so you can mark and then reward it. The lure is used to show the dog what about his behavior will be rewarded. Once the dog assumes the behavior readily, you must fade the lure and any physical or environmental prompts that may accidently get connected to the cue. Is your dog overly-dependent on the lure? Watch him. Is he attending to the signal? or obsessing about the location of the reward? If he's focused on you, the holder of the information, not the location of the food, he understands the game.


What is the very best reward to give your dog?
The lowest value reward your dog will work to earn. (This can vary with the environment and distraction level.) Grade your rewards. Know what your dog values and reserve the great ones for more distracting situations and excellent work. Let your dog know ‘how good' his response was, by establishing a perceivable difference in the level of reward. If we start off with the very best rewards for very simple behaviors, then we have nothing better to give when the dog becomes more skilled.


What is a jackpot?
A jackpot is a surprise bonus "woo-hoo" reward. It should be "better" or "more" -- it must be something that makes the dog go "WOW! How do I make THAT happen again?" Give jackpots for training break-through's, ah-ha moments and extra effort. Don't waste the "good stuff" on everyday average-level work. Reserve favorite and high value rewards for high-quality work and jackpots. If the behavior was "wow-worthy" you might break out his all-time favorite what-ever to celebrate!























Acquiring phase - reward every response
Perfecting phase - reward only the best responses
Maintenance phase - reward unexpectedly for excellence





What is a reward?

A reward is anything that your dog is willing to work to earn.


What is a good reward for my dog?

Only your dog has the answer. A reward is not a reward if it has little or no value to your dog.


"A reward's intensity is strictly dependent on the dog's perception of its intensity. A dog who does not particularly enjoy playing fetch would find a tennis ball a very low intensity reward (and possible rate it as no reward at all.) For a retrieving fanatic, you might not find anything that had greater intensity. I know dogs that would disregard entire steaks if their favorite bumper or ball were offered, and others who will accept a toy but far prefer food. Still others will pass up food or toys in exchange for exuberant, highly physical praise from their handler, eating the liver or grabbing the ball only after the emotional peak has passed." - Suzanne Clothier


"What kind of food rewards should I use?"

Size, texture and smell Training treats should be small, soft, tasty and quickly swallowed. It is best if they are aromatic - smelly!) At home or in non-distracting places that your dog is comfortable, his own dog food kibble or small dry treats will be fine. In class, at the park or around hard-to-resist distractions, your food-power must be greater than the distraction your dog faces.


Some suggestions:
Cubed Happy Howie meat roll ("canned" dog food in sausage form). Cubed lean meat: chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, lean hamburger patty. Organ meats - liver, kidney, beef heart, chicken liver. Low-fat cheese (string cheese, mozzarella or Swiss - go easy on the cheddar, it's high in fat. Thinly sliced and quartered wieners, pre-cooked meatballs, luncheon meat. Non-sugary breakfast cereal, croutons, goldfish crackers, flavored rice cakes. Peanut butter sandwich or cheese melted between two flour tortillas - rolled flat with a rolling pin and cut into squares with a pizza cutter. Is your dog picky and hard to motivate? Try canned cat food or water-packed tuna on a spoon. Some dogs really like carrots, banana chips and other vegetables and fruits, although they are rarely aromatic enough in high stress or distracting situations.


Home made treat recipes!


But I thought you weren't supposed to feed your dog "People Food"!
That bag of dog food that you open every day is FULL of "people food" ... meat, grains, vegetables. The biggest difference between the food on your plate and the food that is turned into meat flavored cereal in your dog's bowl? Quality. If you are horrified by the "allowable quantity of fly parts" in the wieners you feed your kids, imagine what they allow in pet food! The chicken meat meal in your dog food might very well be beaks and feet or the meat of old tough birds or worse, things no human would consider eating. Chicken breast is better! Choose lean, healthy rewards.


The Twinkie Factor:
Sometimes the one food your dog thinks is the BEST isn't really a healthy choice, or you can't stand it. My dogs LOVE salmon treats. I hate the fact that after a training session my fingers are fishy hours later. A dog's sense of smell is greater than his sense of taste, so by putting aromatic foods in with other food treats, you can create salmon flavored chicken bits or wiener flavored Cheerios. Even though your dog might do just about anything to earn them, those grocery store aisle treats are full of sugar and artificial flavors and colors and preservatives you can't pronounce aren't your first choice of training treat, but they will also impart that "flavor" onto other foods. So dice them up small and add them to your bag of "trail mix" and you can be generous with the flavor they crave, without filling them full of unhealthy treats.


Satiation -
Don't train your pup on a full stomach. Feed your dog less or, for small or picky pups, skip dinner entirely before class! Variety is important. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing! As much as you might like Thanksgiving turkey, after several days of the same old turkey leftovers you might have a craving for some plain old macaroni & cheese!


Foods to avoid:
Gristle or high fat. Rinse off rich sauces. No chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions. NOTHING from your plate while you are eating! (This is how begging is learned!) If your dog has allergies or health concerns consult your veterinarian - read the ingredients list on his dog food for suggestions of what is safe (whatever meat is the meat source will be safe, rice cakes for rice based, diced potato bits for potato based diets. A can of your dog's special diet or hypo-allergenic food (mix with a little flour if needed - rice flour if it's a rice-base diet) and roll it out on a cookie sheet, bake and cut with a pizza cutter into bite sized pieces while still warm.



Your dog should learn to work for everything it values - like your attention! Have him sit before praise, petting, toys, games, privileges. Real-life rewards: have him do something before getting to get in or out of the car, go through doors, get a leash put on, go sniff, greet visitors, play with another animal, chase a squirrel. THIS is how you get beyond using food.


Food rewards and the picky eater.
If your dog is a fussy eater, reluctant to take food from your hand or has to take it off and examine it to make sure you aren't trying to poison her, try putting her on a 'hand feeding' regimine to increase her desire and motivation for the food. Instead of feeding her from her bowl, measure her day's ration into a plastic bag and tuck it in your pocket. Randomly call and have her sit and give her three or four kibble and then send her away "all done" and ignore her. If you offer it and she declines, fine. Wait awhile and call her again and make a big whoop de do and offer her another three or four kibble like you are giving her gold. It's her choice if she doesn't want them, don't beg or try and cajole her into eating. No biggie. Probably by tomorrow, she'll be taking them more readily and by day three of turning down more than she eats, she may be really excited about those few kibble!


See also:
Cooperative Canine
Great article by Sue Ailsby "Teaching Your Dog to Eat"


Is your dog Fit or FAT?
Selecting healthy foods

Technical terms:
"On cue" means the behavior happens every time the dog hears or sees the cue.

"Stimulus control" means the dog performs only the cued behavior and never gives a different behavior when cued, and the dog doesn't offer the behavior when he isn't cued.

" Latency" is the delay between the cue and the response.

"Zero latency" is instantaneous response to a cue.

Why should I move to a variable schedule of reward? 
The reason for moving to a variable schedule is, if done correctly, it strengthens behavior. If done incorrectly, behavior deteriorates. Why? Because most people don't reward on a variable schedule, they just get stingy and reward less often. Rather than rewarding randomly, they reduce the frequency. Behavior that doesn't get rewarded, fades.


Most people want to move to a variable schedule for the wrong reason: they are in a hurry to "get rid of the food." When do I move to a variable schedule of reward? The variable schedule begins when the dog understands the concept and the behavior is on cue, during the "perfecting" process.


"Differential reinforcement" means better rewards for better responses and average rewards for average responses. There might be no reward for slow or poor performance, but a chance to "try again." The trainer might ask for a series of 5 behaviors and give five treats in succession after the completion or a whole handful with a celebration if the behavior series was above average. The dog shouldn't feel cheated or unrewarded, but because of rich and varied rewards, recognize that -while there may be dry spells between rewards- they are well worth the wait!

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