When I studied learning theory – the science of how animals learn – I learned amazing ways to manage rewards in such a way that your training becomes much more effective. Let me share some of them with you and also decode the scientific lingo as we go along.

Satiation – this means your dog has had enough of a certain type of reward. For example, if you train him immediately or soon after his dinner and use his kibble as reward, he’s less likely to work for that particular type of food, because his stomach is full. Many dogs will work for a different type of food, even if full. But don’t overdo it, because the dog may become nauseated. If you give your dog a reward that he no longer wants, you’ll actually be punishing him instead of rewarding him!

Deprivation – we talk about deprivation when a dog has gone for a considerable amount of time without having access to a certain reward, and is willing to work for it. For example, your dog is more likely to work for kibble if you train him just before his dinner, because he’s food deprived. A word of caution . . . food deprived is not the same as starved, and so while it’s reasonable to train your dog just before a meal, when he’s hungry and likely to work for dog food, it’s abuse to make your dog go hungry for 24 hours to make him work better for dog food. Such an extended period of time without food is likely to lower your dog’s levels of blood sugar and make him too anxious to even focus on the training.

Positive behavioral contrast – this happens when your dog is used to a certain reward and you, unexpectedly, present him with a much better reward. This is likely to motivate him and improve his performance and is the principle from which jackpotting arose. One example is rewarding your dog with boring dog biscuits and suddenly producing a piece of sausage to reward him with. You can almost see him go “woo hoo!”

Negative behavioral contrast – this happens when your dog is used to a certain reward, a very tasty one, and you suddenly switch to a boring one. For example, rewarding him repeatedly with sausage and then presenting him with kibble. As you downgrade his reward, so does he downgrade his motivation!

Bearing this learning theory lesson in mind, what can you do to make your rewards more effective?

– Ask yourself what your dog is likely to want and not want right now.

– Remember what is a reward now can be a punisher later and vice versa.

– After receiving a disappointing reward, your dog is likely to perform the behavior again in the hope that you’ll “pay him better” next time. Do pay him better next time. The purpose of using a disappointing reward is to create the expectancy of something better, but if your dog keeps on being disappointed he will soon stop playing the training game! So the trick here is to switch, randomly and unpredictably, between very tasty food treats and not so great food treats.

– Vary your rewards so that your dog won’t know what’s coming and will keep playing the game – food treats, a toy, freedom to go smell a tree, verbal praise, petting, freedom to go play with another dog or greet a person, a combination of 2 or 3 types of rewards, bigger food treats, smaller food treats. . . your imagination is the limit.

– Alexandra Santos –


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