Friday, June 25, 2010

These are a few of her favorite things!

Photo courtesy of Robin Tinay Sallie.

Last week, we made a list of things that our dogs like. Today, it’s time to rank those things by awesomeness. By doing this, we will truly be prepared to use reinforcements to their fullest potential.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that awesomeness is defined by your dog. I know lots of people who would rate chocolate as their favorite treat, but since it gives me migraines, if you were to hand me a platter of brownies, I can’t say that I’d be that excited. I might fake it- I do have a certain level of tact, after all- but it wouldn’t exactly motivate me.

Unfortunately, our dogs can’t talk. They can’t say that while they appreciate that dry dog biscuit, they’d much rather have the piece of soft, stinky cheese. Instead, we have to watch their reactions. Does your dog snatch certain things out of your hands, while merely accepting others? If so, you can assume that the first tidbit was of higher value than the second.

But what of the dogs who are just stomachs with legs? My Maisy is one of those, and while it can be nice to use scented pocket lint in a pinch, it makes it hard to reward the exceptional efforts. So I created a test. I assembled a variety of foods that I knew she enjoyed. My original list of food items that Maisy likes was 27 items long (and growing), so I couldn’t test them all. Instead, I took the five that, based on her body language, I thought might be at the top of the list.

Once I had everything ready, I offered her one treat in each hand to see which one she would choose. I repeated each trial multiple times so that I could tell if her choice was consistent or not. I also switched things up so I could tell if it was a true preference, or simply a matter of always picking what was in my left hand, or the one that I showed her first. By doing this, I learned that potato chips are pretty much her favorite thing in the world, followed by raw chicken as a close second. (Also in the running were hot dogs, salmon jerky, and pieces of dog food rolls.)

Now, this is all well and good, but these tests are a bit trickier to carry out with things from our other two categories. How do you present choices between going for a walk and playing tug? I suppose that you could hold up a leash and a toy, but then how do you test that against things that don’t require props, like verbal praise or chase-the-handler games? I couldn’t figure it out (and if you can, please let me know) so I had to come up with something else.

What I ended up doing was seeing what caught her attention, and then what would distract her from that. If I could distract her from a neighborhood cat using a tennis ball, I figured that meant the ball was more interesting than the cat, and therefore, of higher value. Conversely, there is nothing more interesting than the possibility of chasing chickens or geese, so I have to assume that is a very rewarding activity. Again, I repeated my experiment many times to ensure that my findings were consistent.

I was quite surprised by what I learned. I thought her tennis ball would be the highest value thing, and indeed, it’s probably in the top three. But when I tried to distract her away from the door as I was leaving one day by throwing a tennis ball, she didn’t even track its motion. It was like the idea of coming with us was so much more awesome that she completely ignored her favorite toy. In fact, for a long time, I couldn’t find anything better than the possibility of going somewhere with her person.

But I was even more surprised to learn that her Tug-a-Jug trumped even that. When I put it out, Maisy barely looked up as I left. I tried other food toys, too, but they didn’t seem have the same pull as the Tug-a-Jug did; for each of the other food toys, she either followed me to the door, but kept looking back at the toy, or went to the toy, but kept looking at the door. With the Tug-a-Jug, she barely noticed me leave. I have no idea why, but she loves that thing.

After all of this observation and testing, you should have a good idea of what your dog finds awesome. You probably won’t be able to create a linear list that states that going for walks is always in the number one spot- there are just too many variables to take into account. For example, I have no idea if Maisy was just especially hungry the day I tested the Tug-a-Jug. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the toy at all, and instead the kibble I put inside it. Still, it let me know that there are at least times where the Tug-a-Jug is better than I am. *sigh*

But, after all this, I know that Maisy’s favorite things include being with me, playing ball, potato chips, the Tug-a-Jug and chase games. How about you guys? Out of your huge lists of things your dog likes, which are the top five? How do you know? Is your response based on observations or have you tested things like I have? I can’t wait to hear what your dogs find awesome!


Criosphynx said...

Interesting. I have a list in my head, but never really thought about writing it down. I gauge it like you describe, seeing if one life reward or object can distract them from another, and if it cannot, then I assign value to it based on that. :)

KayakMedia said...

Thanks for a fun game! I have to go back and do the list-making first. :)

Training my Mammoth said...

This is a fun game. I missed last week's post about making the list, but I'll get all caught up.

My lab is just a stomach with legs. I like that phrase! Very accurate. I could give him a piece of dry kibble, a piece of string cheese, or a piece of cardboard and he'd gobble them all down equally excited. Layla, the Malamute, is very crafty and sneaky with things. When it's time for her heartworm pills, she'll chew threw peanut butter/cheese/whatever and spit out the pill. She'll eat her entire bowl of food and leave the one lone pill in the bowl. If I try forcing it down her throat, she'll swallow it - and then retch it back up immediately.

I'm really going to enjoy making the lists. Thanks!

Crystal said...

I'm glad you're all enjoying thinking about what your dogs like! I was very surprised to learn about some of Maisy's preferences. I was pleased to learn that the chance to go somewhere with me was in her top three. I found it interesting that she prefers the Tug-a-Jug over other food toys. I was unsurprised that chips is better than every other food item ever... but it was fun to see just how much more she liked it.

Next week (hopefully- I've been feeling a bit under the weather this week), I'll write a post on how to put all this info to good use... as well as my favorite reinforcement strategy: Premack!