Look, Mum! No Treats! (Well, Getting There)

Guys, I have a confession to make. I am a reward and praise addict. I get nervous if I train a dog for 10 seconds and can’t tell him he’s brilliant five times and stuff his mouth with treats so he wouldn’t talk back. I just feel this… compulsion to reward. Every. Single. Behavior. Except in agility. Somehow my brain figured out that running a sequence of 20 obstacles in agility without stuffing my dog’s face after each one is fine and the sky won’t come falling down if I don’t do it.

This spring Ruby and I started on a new adventure together: Rally Obedience. I thought it would be good for him because Java was getting more training time than him and this would give him some more one-on-one time with me. It would also be good for me because I would have to learn to fight my compulsive feeding habit.

There is a reason why I like to reward every single behavior: it’s crystal clear what I like and what I don’t like. If the sit is too slow, I don’t reward it. If heeling is too wide or the dog looks away during heeling, too bad – you’ll just have to heel a little longer to get that reward. Though heeling is already a grey area because the dog can make many many decisions before I reward. If I reward every behavior that I like it’s easy for me to keep improving it over time, even though I’m not specifically working on it, or at least keep it from deteriorating from lack of reinforcement.

RallyO is making me face my fears of:
– Loosing Ruby’s enthusiasm (which very quickly means loosing ability to work with Ruby – he is either 100% on or he’s gone, there is little middle ground with him)
– Making him frantic, thinking he did something wrong because reward didn’t appear immediately
– Seeing behaviors deteriorate, becoming less precise and/or slower

We practiced doing several exercises before a reward at home, but today was the first time doing it outside with all the distractions that this brings. Main rewards were placed in three bowls positioned around the sequence. I couldn’t help but reward him twice from hand as well – he was such a good boy πŸ™‚ While he did feel a bit “off” sometimes and not as connected as he usually is, I am soooooo proud of how well he did πŸ™‚

I love seeing his fast responses and excited tail. πŸ™‚ I would hate to loose that in the process of reducing frequency of reinforcement. I might combine rewarding from hand with rewarding from bowls for a while, so that I can reward anything he does exceptionally well right away. This way I’m hoping he will figure out that it still pays off when he tries hard and this should keep the enthusiasm up.

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9 thoughts on “Look, Mum! No Treats! (Well, Getting There)

  1. Silke

    Your bowls plan looks like a good plan to me. I do something similar for sequences (short with 2-6 obstacles) with a toy at the end of the last obstacle.

    Percy also lost excitement in team test (4min without reward). I’m thinking of taking Denise Fenzis class “Bridging the Gap” (http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/203) where she teaches how to get rid of reinforcers without loosing excitement. It’s an obedience class, but I think it could be suitable for agilty too and especially for ralley where you can’t reward over longer periods of time. As Percy did so well in his BH exam and OK in team test, I wonder if I should work for getting better at team test, because for team test you can even do it as competition. So he can learn how it feels competing until we finally are ready for agility trials.

    • 4 min without reward… that scares me πŸ™‚
      Do you still need him to take the team test or has he already passed it? I think Denise Fenzi is awesome, I just love her way of thinking and her blog posts. Bridging the Gap would be my choice as well.
      You could also practice that being in competition feeling by going to a frisbee match which is what I would do if I would want to create association trial environment = lots of fun with me.

  2. Silke Capo

    BH is even worse: 8 min without reward. It scared me too, because I am like you: I have that compulsion to reward everything he did good.
    Percy did great the first time with the 8min, but not so good the second time with only 4min, I assume because he knew, there won’t be a reward until the end.
    We passed both, BH and team test πŸ™‚ Team test was a competition (I didn’t know that before) with people from several clubs nearby and most of them doing team test multiple times. We got 11th out of 20. So not that bad. That part outside he did great (the “city part” with things like walking on loose leash when joggers, dogs, children etc. pass by, doing sit with another dog playing with his owner, sitting while handler talks to a person etc.), the obedience part was not as good as he can do with lots of sniffing, lagging behind and forging.
    I already did a class at Denise (play class) that helped me a lot with Nuno.
    Frisbee match would be fun for Percy, I’m sure, but me being a very bad thrower, I better don’t do that. Don’t want to end other peoples day in hospital because I threw a frisbee at them πŸ˜‰

    • What does BH stand for? An exam called BBH used to be mandatory in Slovenia (I think) before entering Rally Obedience competitions.
      Congratulations on passing the tests! 11 out of 20 sounds great! I’m glad we don’t have to pass such exams here πŸ™‚
      Haha now I have a vivid image of a frisbee flying toward poor unsuspecting spectator πŸ™‚ My throwing is the same πŸ˜‰

  3. Linda

    Hi Andreja -wow- just loved this video. Ruby really looks like he is enjoying himself. Now that I’m also trying not to reward every few seconds I can understand your thoughts on this. If I use a ball then I have intense attention for as long as I want but it is over the top. So have been working with treats during training sequence then ball reward. This has been working well but now that I’m trying to delay the rewards her attention wanes and I also have a similar food bowl issue with Lacey, once she spots a treat bowl it just overtakes all her thoughts and she just has to have it. Have been working on this but still cant heel passed one yet!!. She knows she will get it but the action of “giving it up to get it ” is difficult for her to compute :-). I’m also trying using a ball in her bowl in place of the food at the end of a sequence to release her. Sure we will get there….eventually πŸ™‚

    • Yes, I was quite surprised how well he took to RallyO, especially since I can’t reward him with toys now that his toe is busted.
      To prevent waning attention my plan is to do much more short exercises (one cue) than longer ones. Also, longer ones get a much bigger reward. We practice almost every evening for his dinner bowl. Sometimes he needs to work for 10s before releasing to the bowl, sometimes 30s, sometimes more. If it looks to me like he slowed down, I do more short sessions before trying a longer one again. Never two long sessions back-to-back. So far it seems to be working, we’ll see if I can get to full length sequences this way.
      For β€œgiving it up to get it ” – do you play any other games with her in which she has to use this skill? Like Susan Garrett’s It’s Your Choice? I think sometimes we need to present a task to a dog in a different way so that he builds up the self-control “muscles” before we can use this effectively in training.

      • Linda

        Thanks. Makes sense,think you are right about working on other games to build up her self-control for doing the food in the bowl rewards as she really battles herself. I haven’t done any other games with food for quite awhile now so think I will take a step back, do some research and introduce some games. Have you done another post about Susan Garrett’s It’s Your Choice games?

        • I don’t think I ever wrote about It’s Your Choice. It goes like this:
          Our goal is that the default behavior when the dog sees something he wants (food in a bowl) is to exercise self-control and offer what he thinks we want. Because of this we don’t use any verbal cues such as Leave It.
          Start with a few pieces of smelly treats in your palm. Hold it at the level of Lacey’s nose or lower. When she moves toward it, say nothing, but close the fist. When she moves her muzzle away even for a split second open the palm – and prepare to close it again instantly, because she will probably try to go after those treats. Keep doing this until she moves her head away from your fist and doesn’t go for the treats even after you open the fist. Praise. If she goes for the treats, close your fist. With the other hand take one of the treats from your palm. If she goes for the treat, close your fist. Once she is able to wait while you open the palm and pick one treat with the other hand, deliver that treat directly to her mouth. If you’ve never done this before the first treat might take you a minute or more to deliver, but every next treat will be easier πŸ™‚
          Treats need to be yummy enough that she will remain motivated to solve this puzzle, but not so good that she will be unable to think. You might need to experiment a little, but generally it’s better to have treats that are too tempting than those that are too boring.

          When she can do this easily, take a small bowl that you can cover with a palm of your hand. (Susan does this with treats on the floor, but for what you’re trying to achieve you might just as well go directly to the bowl problem). Put some treats in there, put the bowl on the ground and play the same game, delivering treats one by one to her mouth and covering the bowl with your hand or your foot (if you’re standing and you’re fast enough) if she approaches it. I think this part will be much easier for you.

          Then there’s another possibility: perhaps she has relatively good self-control, but is too aroused by the thought of food to respond to cues? Two exercises spring to mind.

          #1: Set a bowl down with a treat (if you worked through above exercises then she should leave it alone). Ask her to do something simple, like sit, down or spin (this one is actually quite hard for some). Then release to the bowl. Rinse and repeat πŸ™‚ When she gets too good at this, send her directly to the bowl two times, then ask for a behavior first before sending. Ruby finds this very difficult πŸ™‚

          #2: Set a bowl with food on the ground. Put Lacey on a leash and ask her to do something that you know could be a problem when there is a bowl on the ground. If she does it – great! Send to bowl for reward. If she doesn’t, take her a few meters away and ask for the same behavior. If she does it – great! Send to bowl for reward. If she doesn’t, take her a few meters away and repeat procedure. Take her as far as necessary to get the behavior, then run with her to the bowl. With time she will be able to work closer and closer to the bowl.

          Try it and let me know how it goes πŸ™‚

          • Linda

            Huge thank you for all your advice and taking up so much of your time. Will start working on this and let you know how it goes.

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