Sunday, October 6, 2013

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Rewarding Your Dog

When Denise talks about rewards in dog training, they seem to fall into one of two categories: things or activities.

Rewarding with things is very common in the dog training world; these are the ones that require that you plan ahead and have food or toys available for the reward process. Both food and toys are important rewards. Denise prefers to use toys when she working on happy, enthusiastic performances and food when she’s working on precision, but when it comes down to it, she believes attitude is more important than precision.

Where Denise really shines, though, is rewarding with activities. These rewards are ones that don’t come with something tangible, but instead in doing something. For example, Denise does a lot of personal play with her dogs. This is different than toy play. Instead, it’s about the dog and handler interacting together in a fun way.

You know what's fun? Running!
Denise also talks a lot about making activities in and of themselves rewarding. She told us about a study (sorry Science Geeks, I don’t have a citation) where researchers split kids into two groups. Both groups were told that they were studying some new puzzles, and they wanted the kids to play with them and then answer some questions. The first group was told they would be paid at the end, and the other was not paid. After the kids played with the puzzle for a specified period of time, they were told the researcher would be in to ask them some questions. While the kids were waiting, the group of kids who were not paid continued to play with the puzzles, while the paid group did not.

What does this have to do with dog training? Well, as this study demonstrated (and as many of us know from experience), activities done as volunteers often yield more satisfaction than those done for pay. In other words: we enjoy work more when we find it intrinsically rewarding. Dogs are the same. We shouldn’t need to pay them for things that are fun… and training can be fun! Many dogs naturally enjoy retrieving or jumping or running.

Of course, you have to make the work interesting for the dog. Make it an exciting privilege for your dog, like a child getting to go to DisneyWorld. Teach your dog that if he’s going to work, it needs to be at his full capacity. Or, to paraphrase Master Yoda: Work or or don’t work. There is no halfway.

Be sure that your dog receives one unit of reward for one unit of effort. Denise and Deb talk quite a bit about this in their upcoming book, but basically, if your dog tries to do something that is very difficult for him, compensate him fairly for it- kind of like hazard pay. As your dog gets better at that same thing, you can reduce the amount of reward he receives because it doesn’t require as much effort any more. Doing so often naturally leads to the reduced reward schedule so necessary in trials.

Finally, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Denise told us that the more things your dog does wrong, the better. Mistakes help a dog understand what won’t be rewarded, meaning that in the long run, he will have a better idea of what will. If you feed your dog so much that he never fails, all he learns to do is to eat, not work. Teach your dog to work.

How do you reward your dog? Personally, I tend to be a bit dependent on things. A lot of this is because I compete mainly in venues that allow me to take food in the ring, so I don’t have a ton of incentive to develop activity rewards. For the few times I do compete somewhere I can’t use food, I’m fortunate enough that Maisy does find my smiles and praise rewarding.


Juniper said...

I'm guilty of keeping a high rate of reinforcement with food, although it's often because I'm shaping a new trick or working on finessing a specific aspect of a behavior. But if I set my goal for the session as having fun doing multiple behaviors/building a behavior chain, then I tend to substitute in more activities as rewards. Chimera likes to jump up, jump onto my lap, wrestle, and get a rubdown with happy talk. He's not as big on running with me as Dragon was, but I also have put less effort into developing that as a fun activity (mostly due to lack of space and the fact that Cai can't be off-leash).

ATurtle said...

I use a lot of food rewards, especially with Gracie my food worshipper. I do use a lot of tricks and other fun activities too. I find a short series of favorite tricks calms nerves for both me and my dogs at trials. For Gidget, who isn't anywhere near the work-a-holic Gracie is, activity rewards are the only way to keep her attitude up! Her favorite activity does involve a toy, but she doesn't just want to have the toy, she wants to chase it and run around like a crazy thing with it!

A quick note on a previous post: if you're still looking for a third job the vet clinic I work at is looking for a receptionist. It's in New Hope if that's an option for you at all. A couple evenings a week (3-7pm I think) and Sat. (7am-1pm). Great group of people, really good veterinarians, and discounts.