The reward system

I almost always have some sort of food on me.  Yesterday as I prepared to file Elsa's nails I grabbed a handful of new food I got and tucked it into my bra.  As soon as I did it I knew that I shouldn't have. It smells very fishy being mostly salmon so I quickly removed it and placed it on the shelf outside.  I wear yoga pants a lot so that means that I don't have pockets which means that I have no where to put treats, except my bra.  This is the reason that I got poison ivy across my chest while in CT.  I am always putting treats in and taking them out.

Having treats on you is very very important.  Of course not all dogs are rewarded by treats, some prefer a ball, a tug toy or perhaps a soft stuffed toy.  Because Elsa is young still I like to be ready at all times.  Rewarding a behavior when they offer something good, anything good is essential to fast learning.  Linking something that they do not like to something they do like is association and it is how dogs learn.

Even if Luke who is now 12 years old makes a great decision on his own while we are out, I will reward him with a treat.  For example a while back we were at the beach.   We were just standing watching the goings on when a lady walked by with her dog who was going off.  I was with my poodle group of friends so the dog was barking at all the poodles.  Luke watched the dog as it lunged at all the dogs.  Many of the dogs in our group were returning the same behavior.  Luke decided it wasn't worth it and just sat down, he got a treat and a kiss and a hug for that.

I mostly carry organic chicken and rice sticks that I get at Trader Joe's.  They are great to hold in your hand while on a walk and don't smell bad when you carry them in your clothing.  ;)  I buy them 4 bags at a time with each trip to the store.  I also use cheese strings, kibble and anything else that the dogs enjoy.
Many of the treats are pumped into Luke on our walks just because he needs extra calories.  He's such a meek eater than any food I can get in is good.

But for Elsa they are used as treats for good behavior or the association link.  By adding a reward, and by that I mean real reward; not a pat on the head which many dogs do not consider rewarding at all you speed the learning process.  "You mean if I don't lunge at other dogs I get a treat?"  Wow.  We used treats a great deal when Elsa was very early for many scary things in the park.  Statues that she thought were real, put treats on it until she is walking by without batting a lash.  When she could do a down in a crowded strip mall, treats, treats.

Of course once you start with treats and a lesson is learned and solidified you then must wean off.  Not completely, but to a minimum.  Choosing the most difficult behaviors, in the most highly distracted areas is where you keep them coming the longest.  If you continue to use treats for too long on the easy stuff then you will be left with a dog that "only does it for treats" like I hear so often.

Not every behavior is treat rewarded, some activities are rewarding in themselves.  When we get to the park Elsa MUST sit before I release her out of the back of my Xterra.  The release is her reward and until she sits she will not get it.  There is no food involved with this behavior.  If your dog wants something badly, say to get off leash and run with other dogs then you can use that as the reward itself.  But having treats on you when they offer up something great is optimal.

Timing is everything with rewarding, if you have bad timing then you might just be offering up rewards for nothing, in your dogs head.  If you are using a bridge word then rewarding is easy and the timing is put upon your bridge word (Bridge word blog tomorrow) .  If not then it can be very tricky and timing is of the utmost importance.  The treat must be given so that your dog links the reward to the behavior that you are trying to link it with.  If not then you are not teaching anything but the free food lesson.  

Don't be afraid to reward with treats but also don't use them as a crutch.  Do not bribe with food, keep them away until the behavior is offered.  I highly recommend wearing jeans or a treat pouch if you are in a poison ivy area and sensitive to it's charms.  :)  My wonderful poison ivy adventures will be in be explained in detail in book # 2, And Back Again.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post Sherri:)
    I use "intermittent reinforcement" when using treats as rewards. One day will be treat heaven for Costello, the next, everything is done for pats and kisses. Intermittent reinforcement is the same thing that keeps some people in front of slot machines for hours on end, hoping it will pay out, because they KNOW it eventually will. Using this technique, you never totally ween them from treats, it's not necessary. What I've found is that it develops significant attachment to treated behaviors, especially in situations where the necessity is most desperate, i.e., emergencies, etc. By using IR, it also gives them the opportunity to break from the treat and experience the behavior as the goal, and understand the gravity of the behavior. But just as you indicated, not every dog will even respond to treats. I've only had one that didn't, but using IR with a frisbee was indeed challenging, lol:) And it doesn't fit well in a bra!


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