I hated baseball when I was young. My Mother signed me up when I was seven years old and took me to my first practice. I did not want to go. I did not feel comfortable playing the game. I wasn’t very good and I did not know my other teammates.
But, I stuck with it. My Mother took me for ice cream after the games and I started to look forward to that. I started to make friends on the team and realized I was pretty good and enjoyed the applause of the crowd.
After a while I started to enjoy going to the games, not because of the promise of mint chocolate chip ice cream, but because of the enjoyment of the game itself.
The anticipation of the success of the game, the anticipation of possibly getting a home run, the possibility of hearing cheers became fun even before I arrived at the field. I was looking forward to the rewards associated with playing baseball.
I did not even notice when we stopped going for ice cream after each game. The enjoyment of the game itself was enough to keep me coming back for more!
The anticipation of getting a reward is used in the same way in dog training. By using this strategy, you can move away from using treats when training your dog.
The strategy for moving away from treats is simple in theory and then needs to be practiced with each dog to learn his specific tendencies. New behaviors are rewarded 100% of the time when they are new until they are well established. This process will become shorter as you do more training and your dog becomes “savvy” about the pattern of learning new behaviors. My normal rule of thumb for novice dogs is to reward at least 40-50 times before starting to fade out treats.
It is also important to keep in mind that you will need to go back to rewarding more frequently when you introduce distractions. Another way to think about distractions is that they are “competing motivations”. If your dog is focused on training and is excited about the anticipation of getting a reward than he is motivated on one task – getting a reward. If you introduce a bouncing tennis ball next to him and he loves playing with a tennis ball, you now have competing motivations. One motivation is to get a reward from you, the other motivation is to play with the ball.
In that case, you will have to reward much more frequently to keep his attention on you and the anticipation of getting a reward. The payoff has to come more often to keep his interest.
Once your dog does the behavior reliably with a 100% reward schedule, then you should start replacing some of those rewards with motivation. “Good boy!!” Then, reward every other or every third behavior and use encouragement in between rewards.
It is important to mix up the reward schedule so your dog is not receiving a reward in the same pattern, but randomly. For instance, if you are able to reward every five behaviors and continue to get strong behaviors, occasionally reward two behaviors in a row. Then reward three behaviors, then try and wait seven behaviors and then five, etc.
Now lets go back to the baseball analogy when I was young. Similar to my eventual enjoyment after getting into playing baseball, your dog will start to enjoy training because it results in many enjoyable by-products: fun with you (teammates), encouragement (crowd noise), the chance to get treats (ice cream).
So, to make training fun, use a variety of rewards including toys, games, access to people, access to outside and access to treats, and use a lot of encouragement to keep his interest at a high level. Eventually you will see that he loves training by itself for less and less treats.
Finally, a really easy way to practice is to focus on a 5-minute training session and have a finite amount of treats ready. Let’s say you start with 25 treats in the 5-minute training session. The next session replace some of the treats with encouragement or toys or petting and only use 24 treats. The next session take one more treat away. As long as you keep your encouragement high, you will do great! Eventually you will be able to do the entire session without treats.Give it a try, and Happy Training!