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February 24, 2009

The trick to traiing is all in the reward

I am often asked about the how and when of removing treats from the training process.

Many owners are concerned about ending up with a dog that will work only for food. This commonly occurs when treats are used improperly in training -- as lures instead of rewards.

When used as a lure, the dog sees the treat and then is cued to do a behavior -- this "holding the prize" out in front of the dog has a huge disadvantage: no treat visible, no response to the cue.

The correct way to use treats in training involves attaining the desired response, or at least part of the behavior, and then offering the reward. What one needs is a way to tell the dog, "Bingo! You've done it correctly and earned a treat!"

This is often where a clicker comes in handy. Dogs can be quickly and easily taught that the sound of a clicker means they have just earned a reward, which means no treat is visible until it has been earned.

Owners limit the training process when they assume that treats always equal food. We usually recommend a highly interesting food treat when starting to train a young dog; it keeps him motivated. But as training continues, whatever one's dog finds rewarding can be used: going in or out of a door, gaining access to the car, permission to jump up on the couch, a toss of a ball, permission to go play with others, etc.

The important thing is to use these things as rewards for responding correctly to known cues.

Another aspect of fading rewards in response to a cue involves attaining fluency. A dog is fluent when he responds correctly to a cue every time, no matter the circumstances. A dog may sit every time when cued around his food bowl, but what about when he's on the sofa, or standing on a wet sidewalk?

There are three D's to consider when practicing to attain fluency:

Distance -- how far apart you and the dog are when you give the cue.

Duration -- how long the cued response can be maintained.

Distraction -- responses to the cue in varied environments and stimulus levels.

Dogs have a hard time generalizing, so efforts must be made to practice cues in a variety of ways in order for them to be truly reliable. In other words, if you want a correct response to a cue every time, you want to practice all three D's.

Most dog owners are happy to have their dogs respond well most of the time, so they have no real need to attain fluency on most cues. But those who wish to perform with their dogs -- in obedience, agility, freestyle, etc. -- must take the time to ensure their cued behaviors are fluent.

This gives us a greater appreciation for those dog and handler teams we see on television competing at top levels in any venue, and seemingly so effortlessly.

Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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