One of the great mysteries in today’s dog training world is effective use of motivators. Using food, toys and games means that the training dynamic and process is more fun and more effective for a wider variety of dog breeds and temperaments than compulsion and praise alone; but then there are the traps that lead to the “no turkey, no workey” syndrome, or to owner addiction to excitement that has no relationship to the actual work and interaction. So what’s a trainer to do?
First, wrap your head around this inconvenient truth: There is no one answer that is the right one for every dog. There is no guaranteed linear process of using and fading motivators that will be permanent, because dogs are not computers that you program once and then rely on correct programmed responses. So you will still have to learn whatever your dog has to teach you, and often you will need to cycle back to earlier training phases to sharpen or maintain specific skills found in advanced sequences. But I will offer some guidelines to think about on your journey.
When you consider changing how you use a motivator, ask these questions:
What function is the motivator currently serving?
A) Lure: Are you still using food or a toy to guide the dog through a motion pattern or into a position (or both…such as fixing a rock back sit)? If so, you aren’t ready to change how you use the motivator until you see anticipation of the behavior or pattern you’re are training, consistency without resistance in the motion pattern, and confidence. You should also continue to use the lure as you add in and condition the dog to respond to physical guidance that you will need down the road for possible correction of errors and improving the dog’s perception of cues without the lure.
B) Reward: Well of course, right? But…does the dog actually see the motivator as a reward related to a behavior or position or pattern, or does he see the behaviors as minor inconveniences to rush through in order to get to the treat or the game with the toy at the END of behaviors and sequences? Are the behaviors you’re rewarding getting better and stronger and remaining correct, or are they getting hectic? Is your dog obeying cues, or throwing guesses? This will vary a lot, and perhaps evolve with experience. I’ve known dogs who were very spectacular workers and it appeared that motivators had successfully been put in place as rewards, only to see ring performances degrade quickly as the dogs began to anticipate getting OUT of the ring to get to the rewards and games. Behaviors became sloppy, vocalizations got worse to the point of non-qualification, and anticipation of commands got worse. People admired the energy without realizing what the excitement was really about.
C) Success marker: This is dangerous. If the dog is dependent on the motivators to judge his success or failure, the ring becomes a desert of disappointment and worry because the dog is always wondering if he is facing reward delay or reward withholding for an error. It also means that the trainer is not doing enough of the communicating, and is allowing the motivator to do too much of the work. (Hint: Establish a way to tell your dog any time there is an error, with timing that enhances clarity and paves the way for your dog to accept information about what to do instead.)
2) What is the TASK you are training? For example, to your dog does “heel” mean “follow that treat”, and the behavior disappears when the treat is gone? Does “down” really mean “follow the treat to the ground”? Does “go place” mean “go eat”? It’s okay for the answers to be yes for all of that in the learning phase of the motion patterns; but without clarifying the tasks, you won’t get off the lure plateau. What target should your dog actually be following for heeling in order to EARN the treat or toy? How will you show your dog that he must lie down in order to EARN the treat or toy? What go out target should your dog be going to, and what is his task when he gets there in order to EARN the treat or toy? You have to answer those questions specifically in order to construct your training progression correctly.
3) Does the dog know the other reason to comply? This reason is avoidance of some annoying consequence for failure to comply. Consequences don’t have to be hugely uncomfortable, and should never be frightening; but the truth is that physical comfort comparison is a very strong motivator for cooperation. Collar guidance or hands-on guidance can be conditioned to be viewed as information rather than punishment, but still seen as information sources that the dog will prefer to minimize when he’s clear on what a cue means. It can be used consistently and carefully in the process of moving from luring to command response. Then it can be adjusted for intensity to match the personality of the dog when used to insist on effort and cooperation. This guidance should be conditioned EARLY in the training process rather than put off until you’re working on sequences and things begin to go wrong. You don’t want to have the dog confused about both the skill you’re working on and the type of communication you are using.
4) Have you taught the dog to see YOU as the access pass to everything wonderful through cooperation? If you can’t put food or a toy down, and still have your dog offer you eye contact and a cooperative mindset, then you are fighting against your motivator. Powerful motivators are also powerful distractions, and should be used as such in training so you have the opportunity to discuss that Other Reason for compliance.
5) Have you made your dog’s work with you interesting through randomizing the SKILLS themselves, or has your only randomization effort been different types of treats, or toys instead of treats, or rewards sometimes not given? Changing your dog’s expectations empowers you both. It will reveal the strengths and weaknesses in your dog’s skill sets and understanding of cues. It will motivate a different quality of working attention than the simple barter of behavior/ reward. It will reduce anticipation and fidgety behaviors.
When you randomize skills, you also open up the potential for rewarding specific behaviors and skills at will without actually ending the working interaction. This builds the dog’s interest in continuing to work rather than hoping for it to end so there can be a party, a game, and a let-down of focus. It also allows you to build a short training session that still hits some high points you want to polish. More than anything else, grasping the depth of randomization will improve your ability to train the dog rather than merely practice exercises.
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