Monday, January 28, 2013

High Value Rewards Make For the Best Training

I came across another blog post today that urged owners to use their dogs' meals as rewards for training. The author writes,
Our pooches love to work for their meals, by doing something that will reward them with food, or make them search for their food. You have to feed your dog everyday anyways, so why not use this time that is required as a training reward?
Now, I'm not telling you that you shouldn't use your dog's meals as rewards. I know people who do and who use it successfully. The bigger piece of advice to I took away from this post were the great tips regarding meals vs. free feeding. In fact, there are a lot of instances in which you should use your dog's meal during training - such as when your dog has a health problem such as allergies and cannot have commercial treats, or if your dog is overweight and using his meals will eliminate extra calories.

However, the problem that many people run into during training is when you have to find a high-value reward. I always put it this way to my students: If you eat chicken every single day for your meals, are you going to also want chicken for your desserts? When I use treats they are delicious, they are stinky, and they are not always good for you, but there you go.

I use cheap stinky treats. I use expensive, healthy treats. I use hot dogs. I use cheese. I use things that are going to make my dogs bounce off the walls. I want them to work hard to earn the super deliciousness in my hand. Sometimes I have a mixture in my treat bag, other times (usually on my "lazy days") I have just one, but it's usually not the same thing every single day. Variety makes life more interesting, right?

I am blessed with a dog who will work for just about anything; I am also blessed with a dog who has very little food aversion or allergies. He loves his food, he loves working for his stinky treats - but what he REALLY loves working for is his ball. And he will do just about anything for a good game of tug. Jax is an enthusiastic dog.

With him, I use food to begin the introduction of a behavior. Food is great because I can reward quickly, praise often, and continue; rinse, lather, repeat - over and over. I can't do this as well with a toy (the "quickly, often, let's try that again!") because we then have to play the game, release, and focus again. Once he's got it, though, I will play the game all day long as long as he's doing the behavior correctly.

That said, I prefer a toy-driven dog. I use tone-of-voice a lot in my training - I use less tone of so-so work/effort, and BIG HAPPY tones for great work/effort (with behaviors he already knows, not behaviors I am teaching). I can offer a variety of rewards with a toy - if the work was done so-so, I can offer him the toy and the praise in accordance with the level of his effort; if he performs excellently, he gets a bigger, happier tone and a bigger, happier game. More often than not, he works to earn that bigger, happier game.

But not all dogs are toy-driven, and toys do not work well in a class setting because it is highly distracting to other dogs, so what to do you do? I still encourage the use of stinky treats and tone. I use a quiet "Nooooo" as my "try again" cue; I also use a sharp "aht!" if needed, but it's rare. Reward(food) is withheld until the behavior is executed - and the accuracy of the execution will also depend on the dog's knowledge of the behavior, whether he just has the idea of what you want, or whether you have been working toward cleaning it up. But, rewards still have to be worth it. This is where the "yes!" and "good boy!" and "good!" come in play, and again, the use of your tone is going to be key. But tone is not the reward, tone/words are the marker that the dog did right and then he has to wait for the reward - much like a clicker. The food/toy is the reward. So, when you're using food as the reward, you can offer one treat in the event of a so-so effort, and a JACKPOT! in the event of exemplary effort.

**When I'm first teaching a behavior, I use a lot of jackpots (toys or food). It is not until I feel comfortable that my dog knows the behavior that begin to back off on the level of my tone/rewards.

The trick is, finding your dog's "high value" reward.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Way or No Way!

I was having a discussion with a fellow dog trainer the other night which touched on the topics of how rude other dog trainers seemed to be. In this case, my friend was upset because a local trainer was telling clients that a certain method for training dogs in scent work was DOWNRIGHT WRONG and they should not take a course from her.

Now, I've only been doing this dog thing for about 5 years now. The last 2 years I've been more heavily involved in training and competing. This last year is when I started offering classes of my own. I don't claim to be an expert by any means, and I most definitely want to maintain a good relationship with my fellow dog trainers for several reasons:

  1. I might not be able to help them with certain problems, so I need to be able to refer them to someone who can.
  2. They might want to move up into levels or sports that I am not familiar with.
  3. We just aren't clicking as a trainer-student pair.
I cannot stress how important #4 really is. None of us are perfect. Not all of us teach the same methods. Sometimes, a certain method isn't working for a handler-dog team, and they need to try something different. I want to have several tools in my tool belt to order to help my students. I am not a stead-fast trainer with my students nor my dogs. I do not employ only one method - I take what works and throw away what doesn't. This may be what does or doesn't work for me, personally, or what isn't working for my dog, for whatever reason.

As a trainer - of students and dogs - I vow to always keep learning. To always grow. To seek out advice when I need it, and I accept it even when I don't. I will attend seminars and training symposiums when I can. I will have conversations with other dog trainers and competitors and listen to them, even if I don't agree with what they say, there is always something I can take away from such conversations. I will make a point to continue my own training with other people, because an extra set of eyes never hurts.

This does not mean that I won't speak out against dog abuse - because there is a difference. There is dog training and dog abuse, and using methods that shut down a dog are harmful.

However, you should run far, far away from anyone who thinks they are the be-all-end-all expert in dog training. Because no one is a be-all-end-all expert. Because no one should bad mouth another trainer for the sole reason of trying to gain a client.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Big Announcement #2: The Resident Golden Retriever

Top 40 APBTs (that is to say, my tiny little "kennel") is going to be adding a Golden Retriever to our family in about 8 weeks. This is a completely different breed than our beloved terriers, but it's a move that I'm excited about.

A very good friend of mine breeds and shows Golden Retrievers, and while they were never "my breed", I've learned to love them and admire them. The litter was born on January 6th, and we're happy to report that 8 healthy puppies have been born - 5 girls and 3 boys.

We will be adding a little girl to the home - GSR Top40s Keep 'Em Talkin' - who will go by the call name of "Rumor".

Naturally, we have a lot of goals in mind for this little girl. Golden Sunrise Retrievers is the home of the first Golden Retriever to earn a UWP, the first title in the sport of weight pulling. Golden's aren't known for their pulling abilities! Of course, the high hopes for Rumor are to earn a Super Dog title, and of course, this requires us to earn a UWP.

In the meantime, if you're wanting puppy pictures, keep watching us! We'll be posting a lot in the next 8 weeks as we watch this litter grow!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013 Big Announcement #1: Team No F.E.A.R.

Now that the official announcement has been made, I can make my own!

To start the year off right, I have accepted an offer to be a member of a fantastic group of dog people. I feel honored, privileged, and flattered that Clay of Team No F.E.A.R. would think that I have enough talent to be a member of their group, and I hope that Jax and I can live up their expectations.

Team No F.E.A.R. is a group of dog trainers based out of Houston, TX - all of them are talented and accomplished in their own right. All of them owning and competing with working American Pit Bull Terriers. Clay himself has the two youngest UKC Super Dogs - dogs #75 and #76. I met Clay at 2012 Premier and he's been a source of encouragement this past year, helping me move past Howie's death and continue working with the dog I still had. We met up again during NAPBTA Nationals, where he gave me pointers and encouraged me to continue, even though Jax and I racked up 3 NQ's in formal Obedience.

When Clay asked me to join his well-accomplished group, I was thrilled. I didn't view myself as anywhere near as talented as this group of guys. But, Clay has faith in me, and I will use that as motivation to keep moving forward with my goals.

So, thank you, Team No F.E.A.R., for having faith in Jax and I. We hope that we can live up to - and exceed - your hopes for us!