Treats used in dog training can have different value for dogs. Of course, if your dog is like Milo, he or she will greatly appreciate even the tiniest bit of a rice cracker. Some dogs just love food, whereas some are completely indifferent to it. For instance, my parents’ dog, a border collie named Daisy, can easily pass by a bag of groceries. Milo, on the other hand, works as a full-time vacuum cleaner in our house. To be honest, I am so used to him picking up crumbs that I never bother to pick up, when I drop something on the floor. Anyway, all kinds of dogs, “foodies,” “picky eaters” and every type in between, can distinguish treats of different values. Understanding value of treats adds another reinforcement instrument to our toolbox.
People like to be paid for their work. Although it is not the strongest motive for most people, who show up at work every day, but it is both necessary and significant. As you wouldn’t really want to work with no salary, you dog wouldn’t be eager to do what you ask for free. That is why before attempting to train your dog, you should stock up on some basic treats. Small dog biscuits, ready-made training treats, dry dog food, or crackers can be used. These are low value treats. Now, don’t confuse “low value” with “unimportant.” Think about it as one thinks about one’s salary: it is critically important and absolutely necessary, but it is not exiting. It is something you expect, something you are entitled to by default in return for your work. In the same way, a dog is entitled to some basic treats.
Receiving salary is no doubt good, but as the novelty and the excitement of an increase wear off, its motivation power decreases. There is nothing special about being paid the same amount on a regular basic. Everyone is paid after all. To mark exceptional performance people have invented bonuses. The bonus may come in a form of a present, public recognition, or an extra sum of money. Technically, only the later can be called a bonus, but for our purposes, it is all the same. Your dog also deserves something extra for above-average performance. Dogs are eager to please, and high value treats are our way to show them that we particularly liked something. High value treats should be larger and\or tastier then low value. Pieces of chicken, cheese, or vegetables can be used. Although not all dogs are fond of veggies and fruits, but some are, (some just love food, any food). You would know better, what kind of foods your dog likes best. Usually, high value treats would be moist and smelly even to humans, while low value treats would be dry and not as aromatic to us.
Some time ago, I wrote about the role of play and game in dog training, in particular, about the pleasure of discovery and solution. This aspect relates mostly to games, where outcomes are directly influenced by players: you count, develop strategy, work out solutions, and get results. In the same way, you dog works out solutions to challenges you present and gets results. However, there are other types of games relevant to dog training, where outcome depends almost exclusively on chance: gambling. Gambling is extremely addictive, because of the chemistry that goes on in the brain. Each win provokes a release of dopamine, which is also called the pleasure hormone. As winning is completely random, one never knows when it will come, and, therefore, anticipates winning at every turn. That is why it is so addictive: a player always believes that this next one will be the lucky one. Consequently, it takes considerable self-control to drag oneself from this game. According to Dr. Sapolsky the anticipation is what triggers this dopamine release. So, when the winning is completely random, imagine being hooked on this feeling of anticipation. Although, Dr. Sapolsky talks about primates, I am convinced that it works the same way for canines. Karen Pryor, in her classic book “Don’t shoot the dog!”, also suggests using “jackpots” in training of animals. “Jackpots” are considerably large portions of high value treats delivered randomly during training. By large portions, I mean approximately 5-10 pieces for small dogs and 15-20 pieces for larger dogs. Alternatively, it may be a small rawhide or a chewing stick. In other words, jackpot is something that your dog will consume in about 1 minute. The important thing is to deliver a jackpot randomly, not necessary for exceptional performance and not necessary during each training session. Use it just when you feel like giving your dog a little bit of extra excitement. After all, who doesn’t love giving their dogs something tasty? Especially, when it is also useful for the training process.