I am a clicker trainer. As a result, I use a lot of reinforcement when I work with Maisy. When I first started out, each click resulted in a treat purchased from the pet store. Since Maisy ate everything I gave her, I really didn’t think too much about the relative values of what I gave her. A click meant a treat, end of story.
As I’ve learned more about training, I’ve branched out into using toys and activities as a reward, and I pay attention to what she likes best (generally people food). I have made lists of all the things she likes, and I’ve ranked them by value. Some of you have played along with this game, too, which delights me. But while I enjoy making lists and categorizing the items, the exercise doesn’t have much practical value if you don’t do something with the information afterwards. Which is why today, I want to talk about how I use this knowledge in training.
Who hasn’t heard someone- generally a new dog owner or inexperienced trainer- say, “But he does it at home!” We all know why this is, of course: the dog wasn’t adequately “proofed” for the distractions present in a new environment. Every time we increase the difficulty, whether by introducing distractions, or by increasing the distance or duration at which the dog is expected to perform, we need to increase the reinforcement.
Now, this can (and should) be done by increasing the frequency of reinforcement, but it can also be done by increasing the value of the reinforcement. I like to match the highest value reinforcers with the most difficult tasks. If Maisy responds to “come” across the backyard, that might earn her a piece of kibble, but coming away from a dog at the fence might earn her a piece of hot dog, or even a rousing ball-chasing game.
This recall, done during Maisy's first visit to the State Park, will earn her several pieces of beef liver.
However, even when I don’t increase the difficulty of an exercise, I do like to reward the best responses with the best things. Using the recall as an example again, if Maisy comes away from the fence slowly or hesitantly, I’m going to reinforce her response- after all, it was difficult, and she still came. However, if she comes quickly and with enthusiasm, I might give her an even better reward: potato chips. (Remember, on Maisy’s lists, there is pretty much nothing better in the world than a potato chip. Not even hot dogs. You will probably need to use something different for your dog.)
If I don’t have something of higher value, I might use a jackpot, which is simply 5 or 10 of the good treat, given one at a time over the course of 15 to 20 seconds, paired with effusive praise. The use of jackpots is questionable- some people say they don’t really work- but I use them anyway. Even if they don’t work, they can’t hurt.
However, it is important to remember that when following this rule, you really do need to save the outstanding reward for the outstanding response. If you use the high value treat for a simply adequate response, two things could happen. Either you reinforce a less-than-optimal response, thus limiting your progress. Why work hard if you’ll get the tastiest stuff for a mediocre effort?
The other possibility is that you may devalue the treat. Kay Laurence talks about this in her book Teaching with Reinforcement (which is fabulous, and you ought to read it if you’re interested in reinforcement based training). Her argument is that dogs often find novelty reinforcing. Part of what makes a high-value reward so high value is its relative scarcety. I have certainly noticed this with Maisy. She might go crazy for something the first time she gets it, but if I then use it on a regular basis, it no longer provokes the over-the-top response it got before. As a result, if you use high value rewards for run of the mill behaviors, you will likely use that high value reinforcer so often that it becomes kind of boring. Once you’ve discovered what your dog really values, it’s wise to save it for the really special moments so that you can maintain the value of that reinforcer.
In the past, I haven’t been so good about doing this. I’ve used treats rather indiscriminately, and haven’t spent much time thinking about the relative values of the rewards I’ve given, nor have I considered if the response earned that level of reinforcement. Lately, though, I’ve tried to pay attention to this. I generally keep two types of food treats on me at all times: a “regular” value reward (usually a kibble and store-bought treat mix), and a high value reward (generally freeze dried liver or salmon jerky). Both exceptional responses and responses which were difficult (due to distraction) earn the high value reinforcer, along with effusive praise and a lot of attention. Maisy loves attention. I really think it’s helped, too. Her recalls have improved a lot over the past few months, and her moving downs are simply lovely now.
Your turn, now. Have you tried using high value reinforcers like this? If so, tell me about it. I’d love to hear some examples, as well as whether or not you’ve seen it make a difference.