Teach Your Dog to Play The Slots

Gamblers Anonymous – and Why Your Dog Shouldn’t Join

If the title makes it sound like I am promoting vice I apologize. But I am in some ways promoting gambling with your dog. 

 I have a dog in one of my classes who will do nothing unless his owner “shows him the money.” Hiding a treat in her fist doesn’t even work. He literally will not do anything other than sit until the owner shows him the actual treat. In the beginning she was “luring” but it quickly turned into “bribing.” 

How did this get started in the first place? It started in a moment of frustration. She was demonstrating all the things her dog could do to a friend. Her dog decided to slip into the part Deniro played in Taxi Driver,  essentially saying “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? ” She  was embarrassed when Fido (which isn’t really his name, but I want to protect the innocent) just stared at her as if he had never heard “sit.” So she did what any proud parent eagerly trying to show off would do and quietly begged Fido to perform by showing him the treat FIRST. And thus began the slide down the slippery slope of bribery. And oh what a deep dark pit there is at the end of that slope!

Now how does one clamber his way up and out of that pit? It isn’t as difficult as you might think if you remember that your dog does not do math. Remember the joke ” I think gambling was invented as a tax on people who are bad at math.” Clearly our dogs aren’t good at math, which is why we can expect  them to enjoy gambling! And once they are hooked on gambling, they are hooked for life. Hopefully your dog will learn to love playing “the slots.”

The Gambling Mentality

People play the slot machines because they never know when the payoff will occur nor how much they will win. Let those two concepts guide you. Once Fido is “in the game,” in other words excitedly working to get you to click and treat, start to pay off like slot machines in Vegas do…predictably unpredictable. In my students case, we did three sits in a row, very quickly, as she would normally do (showing the treat.) The fourth time, because her dog was “in the game,” he jumped the gun and sat before she had to show the treat. Pay off for this was BIG – a tiny bit of chicken which he had never had before. It was a memorable moment! Being duly impressed with the work – to – payoff ratio, next time he almost sat even before she gave the cue! And thus began the clamber out of that deep pit of bribery. We were on the right track. Yes. Yes. Yes!!

Keep The Payoff. Lose The One-to-One

Next step was to change the payoff often – in other words, becoming predictably unpredictable with our rewards, varying them from low value treats (a piece of dry kibble perhaps,) to over the top high value rewards (have some leftover steak?) And varying the rate of payoff from 1 sit/1 treat to 2 sits/1 treat, 1 sit/no treat just praise. Wow, we were clearly succeeding with this and my students, both bi – and quadra – ped, were back in the game.

Keeping The Addiction Going

There are a few simple rules to keep your dog jonesin’ for the slots.

  • Never let him see the treats or rewards beforehand again.
  • Prepare your treats out of his sight and earshot.
  • Hide that cherished squeaker toy he hasn’t seen for ages somewhere in the house where you will be training so you can suddenly produce it as a reward.
  • Don’t use all of your high value treats/rewards in the beginning. String them out during the training session, using the highest valued treats for the most difficult behavior or one  extraordinarily well done.

Related Posts:

Does Your Dog Have Selective Hearing?

Dog Training The Very Easy Way

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5 Responses to “Teach Your Dog to Play The Slots”

  1. Cyndi 05. Jul, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Great article! What about phasing off treats completely? At least for long enough to complete a CGC Test or Pet Therapy Evaluation? I can usually maintain attention for about 5-10 minutes and then I get the glazed over “whats in it for me?” look and it’s all downhill from there!

  2. Elizabeth Deitz 06. Jul, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    You just gave me a great idea for a post, especially since I have just recently been giving this some thought, and doing a bit of research as well. Have you ever heard of the Premack Principle? It will be the focus of my next post and is very relevant to your question.
    Thanks Cyndi!


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