Calling All Cookie Monsters and Treat Whores

“Me want Cookie! Me eat Cookie! Om nom nom nom. …Me want Cookie. Me eat Cookie” etc. Does this sound like your dog? Or does Fido fail to put out unless you show ‘em the money?

In response to a post I wrote last week, Cyndi wrote “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!”

 I’ve seen that look too! What a great, and eternal, question!

There is a little bit of training lingo I need to get out of the way first though.

Variety Is The Spice of Life

 In training parlance, we have “reinforcement schedules.” There are several different types, but the most promising for our purposes are “fixed ratio” and “variable ratio.”

In the early stages of training a behavior, we often use a fixed ratio schedule of 1:1. In other words, one reward for every 1 behavior performed.  Unfortunately, sometimes we get stuck there and don’t plow onward and upward to the next level.  It is admittedly a big switch to go from fixed to variable ratio.  But there are a couple of tools that I find helpful and make it easier and more fun.

It is often difficult to get out of this rut. I think as humans , we  look for regularity and patterns and easily get in ruts.  I realized this once very clearly while at a seminar. After breaking for lunch, I returned to “my” seat, only to find someone else in it! After sitting there for a mere four hours I somehow came to expect that it would be there for me and that I had claim to it.  The reason I bring this up is that it shows two things. Firstly, I felt entitled to that seat even though I had really had no claim to it, and secondly, I was really rather put out by it!

My dog- related point here is that I felt entitled very very quickly, as do your dogs when it comes to treats.

Predictably Predictable vs. Predictably Unpredictable

An interesting way to get out of that predictable treat dispensing mode is to use a method that helps you be random , for instance I’ve tried to do this without using  but I fell quickly into another, albeit different, pattern. At this site, you can use the sequence generator to give you a random sequence of numbers you can use to ensure that your variable rate of reinforcement is truly random. Say I think I could probably get Fido to do four consecutive behaviors (not necessarily all the same as we don’t want to bore him) without a treat. produced these numbers for me: 1,4,3,5,2. So I will do 1 behavior:1 treat, then 4 behaviors:1 treat, then 3 behaviors:1 treat, and so forth.

This is one step into the “Predictably Unpredictable” arena. But we really are aiming much higher than that!

Not All Rewards Are Created Equal 

There are many ways that our dogs can be rewarded, and they are trying to tell us this each and every day. We are not listening, or at least, I am not listening well.  What does your dog find rewarding? How about a great big sniff of a frog in the garden? Or a game of tug of war? Or a few moments of being allowed on the usually – off – limits bed? Or the chance to terrorize that squirrel? Perhaps the opportunity, while on leash, to great another dog. These are all employable as rewards.

Grab a pen and jot down 30 things your dog likes or does often. (“Does often” is something we will consider next week, but I can tell you that this is related to Premack’s Principle.) Game of tug? Peanut Butter? Belly rub? Pulling on the leash? Chasing an ice cube across the floor? Giving you kisses?

We are going to do two separate things with this list. The first is to rank these rewards in value from the highest to the lowest. So #1 might be roast beef, #2 might be chasing a squirrel and #3 might be a game of Frisbee. If you are training a new behavior , a difficult behavior, or are training in a difficult context, then reward from the top five on this list.

Now go to again.Randomize numbers from 1 – 30 and assign them in the order given from the top of your list to the bottom. So now a bite of chicken might be #1 and #2 might be a belly rub, and #3 might be the opportunity to chase a squirrel.

Getting Ready,Set,Go for The Test

 Here are some things to consider when readying your dog for any test, exam or evaluation:

  • Have you over-practiced? By this I mean, practicing the behaviors you will be tested on with greater distractions than you will encounter during the test,and  for longer periods of time than you are likely to encounter during the test. Consider also practicing at greater distances. 
  •  Have you visited, or simulated the environment in which the test will be taken?
  • Have you become totally familiar with any written material you will be tested on? Knowing the material backwards and forwards will help you feel confident and relaxed, and this in turn will help your dog to relax. 
  • If you have a small dog, know if/when/where you may be allowed to carry him.
  •  Do you know exactly how many times you are permitted to give the cue? 
  •  If a component of the test is temperament testing, doing you know whether your dog is allowed to lay down, sit or stand in each scenario?
  • Have you practiced all your cues with voice and hand signals together as well as separately?
  •  Does your dog do better after a swim, a long run, or a walk? Have you planned to do this before your test? 
  • If your dog is upset by baths, have you taken this into consideration? How do you plan to handle your stress? 
  • Would a good walk or run help you to remain calm? 
  • Does your dog work better when he is hungry? Or does that make him obnoxious?  If he is full, be sure to allow time for him to eliminate before the exam.  
  • Have you habituated your dog to the sights, smells and sounds he will encounter during the test? 
  • If you are not allowed treats or toys during the exam, have you developed a stratagem for rewarding in other ways (rough housing, belly rub, tricks he likes to do?
  •  Have you faded away any food reward you have been using? 
  • Are toys acceptable during any part of the exam?
  •  Between segments of the test, are you permitted to play/work with your dog? Have you planned to take advantage of this time to get /keep your dog “in the game?”
  •  Do you have some handy banter ready for any encounters with people you may have during the exam? For example, what do you plan on saying when children approach your dog? Have you actually role played with others so that your banter is natural and does not sound rehearsed? Have you prepared for the unexpected?
  •  How will you greet the evaluator and how will you introduce your dog? First impressions can be lasting! 
  •  Do you have all the necessary paperwork ready? This may include vaccination records, a clean bill of health from your vet, etc.
  •  Do you know what equipment you are allowed to use? Have you worked your dog sufficiently in that equipment? This is no time to buy a new harness and try it out on test day!
  •  Have you prepared yourself to be observant of your dog?  How does your dog display stress? Are you prepared to stop the exam if he is less than happy about the situation? Keep in mind “The Invisible Gorilla” experiment…if you are not actively  looking for something (signs of stress) you  may not see it.
  • Have you familiarized your dog to people of different races? To medical equipment that may be present? To loud voices, slurred speech, and petting in unconventional ways (roughly,with elbows or clenched fists?) 
  • Do you know when you can repeat cues during the test or use additional cues? For instance, if you are doing a recall can you add “Leave It” if your dog veers off to visit a child or dog? 
  • In some tests or exams, the handler is being evaluated also. If this is the case, are you ready to be proactive with your dog, rather than reactive or inactive?      

Go Premack!

 Just a brief mention of the Premack Principle here with a video of the principle in action.  Watch this video and think how you might utilize it in your training/playing. More about this in a post next week, but this will give you something to think about. 

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2 Responses to “Calling All Cookie Monsters and Treat Whores”

  1. Jan 08. Jul, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Wow – great concept of having the pup do a “watch me” before going for the ball – Scooter could definitely benefit from that…BTW – we have been working on him “commando crawling’ for a trick…

  2. Elizabeth Deitz 12. Jul, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Have you tried the raccoon tail on the leash? I think that is one of the most rewarding toys I’ve found. It seems popular even with dogs who are not really very interested in play.

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