Your Reward Should be Greater Than the Distraction!!
Understanding Reinforcement is Crucial When You Are Talking About Dog Training, or Any Training.
When you work with animals you have to understand what motivates them to show simple behaviors, show complex behaviors and to change unwanted or conditioned behaviors.
It is important to understand these basic ideas so you can get the best out of your dog training program.
And, I am not talking about bribery! If you feel like you have to bribe your dog you are misusing treats click here for that article!
Let’s Break This Down
In dog training, simple behaviors are those that are pretty easy to get your dog to perform; sit, down, and come are all fairly simple behaviors. I call them simple because your dog is likely to do them on his own at some point in time.
It usually does not take a very highly regarded motivator (treat or toy or something your dog naturally wants) to get your dog to show and then to shape these objectively simple behaviors.
In the beginning of dog or puppy training, I often use their dog food or pieces of their kibble to get them to show and reinforce these simple behaviors.
Complex behaviors are behaviors that are more difficult for your dog to show, they may or may not be naturally occurring but they are usually not something that you would consider simple.
They may also require a behavior chain.
For instance, when I trained Service Dogs teaching a dog to turn on the lights is a complex behavior that requires a complex behavior chain (several behaviors must be put together some simple and some complex to complete the whole behavior).
It takes a higher value treat to convince a dog to perform a complex behavior. It also may take some luring and other things.
I often used a little bit of squeeze cheese in the beginning to lure the dogs up to the light switch and then to get them to turn it on or off. Regular dog kibble or their dog food, would not be enough to get most dogs to show this complex behavior.
Changing a Conditioned or Unwanted Behavior
Both conditioned behaviors (ones that have been rewarded either by the animal or by the environment or by you) and that have been going on for a long time, and unwanted behaviors are usually somewhat rewarding to the dog.
Barking at the mailman every day is usually a conditioned behavior because it happens every day over a long period of time, and it is rewarded (or so the dog thinks) by the dog because the mailman leaves when the dog barks (the dog of course doesn’t understand the mail man’s job and that he would leave after delivering the mail anyway).
And conditioned behaviors or habits are harder to change.
This is also usually considered an unwanted behavior.
These conditioned and unwanted behaviors are even more difficult to change and so they require a higher or better motivator.
Understanding From a Human Perspective
If I gave you a piece of chocolate (or something you already showed me you liked) every time you sat on my sofa, I could pretty quickly shape that behavior.
You would learn that I like it when you sit on the sofa and you would be rewarded for doing so and so you would do it more often.
Now let’s say that I wanted to teach you a complex or a behavior chain (something that requires several behaviors) like making a box dinner.
I teach you each step and reward you along the way and then give you a superb reward when you finally chain the behaviors together and accomplish the final meal.
Pretty soon you would be able to make the meal alone, and the rewards could become less.
Now let’s say I want you to stop smoking. So I offer you $100,000 to stop smoking. Would you be able to stop?
Let’s say instead of $100,000 I offer you my praise and a back rub for quitting smoking; would that be a high enough reinforce to get you to change such a bad habit? Probably not!
Motivators are different for each dog, just like they are different for each person.
You have to find what works for your dog and use it to your and your dog’s benefit. One of my dogs would pretty much do anything for her kibble or food (she is on a diet) but the other dog barely eats his meals so his dog food is not likely to be a high motivator.
At my house the motivators range from lowest to highest
- #25 Praise and Affection (for the most part this is not enough to truly motivate or change behavior. We ALL want it to be but the fact of the matter is it is usually not enough!)
- #6 Dog food
- #5 Biscuit or dog treat (Puperoni etc.)
- #4 Cheese
- #3 Chicken
- #2 Liver
- #1 Ball or Tug
A game of ball or tug is like the $100,000 or million dollar pay out at my house.
Need help finding your dog’s motivator? Click here
Think about it… if you got a raw steak out and dangled it in front of your dog’s face; wouldn’t he probably forget about that teasing squirrel?
How I Keep My Dog’s Motivated
I meal feed.
I do not leave food out for them all day.
If I had a buffet at my beck and call or if I had a Chef (like Oprah Winfrey) going out to dinner would not be a special event for me!
The same is true for your dog, if you give him treats all the time and you leave his dinner out for him to eat whenever he wants, chances are food is not going to be a great motivator.
The more hungry your dog (like my dog on a diet) the more easily motivated by food, and the better the food (stinky liverwurst is often a great motivator).
I do not leave balls or tugs out for them to play with on their own.
My dogs have a toy box but they don’t have access to the toys we use as “drive builders” or the toys that we interactively play with together.
That keeps those toys special and it means that they are more motivating.
Things that we revere as special are more motivating to us.
I am a fan of the “Cheese Cake Factory” as a food motivator for me on my birthday. But if I ate there all the time, or worked there… it wouldn’t be special or motivating!
If You Are Trying to Change an Unwanted or Bad Behavior
You are really going to need to find something that is motivating for your dog to work for, like the million dollar payout.
Remember it is your job to be more motivating than everything else that is going on around your dog and distracting him.
You may have to work at this. I build my dog’s motivation for the ball, I don’t just toss it and hope for the best. For more on building drive click here.
If the neighbor or the cat or the bird is more rewarding you are doing it wrong!
If you are having trouble getting your dog to listen you may have to teach him in a less distracting environment and work your way up first before you can conquer the behavior in the environment you desire.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.