If you have taken a WOOFS! class you have probably heard us request that you bring high value food rewards to class. So what’s with the obsession with food, you might ask?
To begin with, we are positive reinforcement trainers. This means that we use rewards (technically reinforcers) to teach dogs to respond to the cues we give, such as Sit, Down, and Come. A reward can really be ANYTHING that your dog will continue to work for. A ball, a tummy rub and a hot dog can all be used as training rewards.
So why do we insist on using food rewards? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
- For most dogs, food is their preferred reward.
- Food rewards make sense for a classroom environment. Six puppies chasing six balls after a sit exercise would be hilarious, but it is unlikely to lead to a lot of learning.
- Food treats allow for a lot of repetitions and successful repetitions help consolidate learning.
But as many puppy owners have learned, not just any treat will do. Treats have a relative value. In the absence of any other reinforcers, a very low value food reward can be enough to keep your pups attention. That’s why a dry biscuit in your quiet home works like a charm. But as the environment becomes more and more interesting, your food reward needs to be able to compete. Using that same biscuit, in a room with five other puppies, you might have a hard time convincing your dog to pay attention to you. That is because the other puppies are way more interesting than your biscuit. This is the main reason many people come to class telling us, “But he loves this at home”! We know. We believe you. But we also know that the classroom environment is super exciting and you need to come prepared with a treat that will trump these distractions. Enter: the high value food reward.
The high value food reward can be an elusive treasure. At WOOFS! we are always prepared with diced hot dogs and cheddar cheese. These are inexpensive, easy to find, high value rewards that most dogs will work for. The problem is, for many pups, they are just too rich and can result in terrible diarrhea. The ideal treat is something that your dog will continue to work for over the course of an hour long class and won’t result in gastrointestinal upset. For some dogs this is not an easy find. If your dog has a stomach of steel and you can use any treat you want, you are incredibly lucky.
One way to deal with this issue is to disguise some low value, easy on the stomach treats as rich, high value treats. We do this by mixing all of the treats together in one bag. If the high value treats rub off onto the lower value treats, it might raise their value enough to keep your dog interested. A 50/50 mix will give your dog 50% fewer rich treats, hopefully keep their attention and avoid the post training diarrhea issue.
So check out my video below mixing high value and low value food rewards to try and find the golden mix that will work for class!