Choosing Rewards

I have recently been forced to think a bit on my choice of rewards for Zumi.  We are in a puppy agility class right now to get Zumi exposure to working in a group class with lots of distractions around.  Recently her little group switched to a new instructor who, due to small differences in opinion, has caused me to think about the WHYS of my ideas.

Currently I bring to class a variety of different style tug toys and her dinner of kibble.  During recalls and most active work I try to use a toy as much as possible.  I certainly don't believe that all agility dogs must tug, but with a dog who values toy play I feel that it has the potential to create a higher level of arousal and intensity that can be hard to match with food.  For many dogs, a ball can create even more intensity and speed than tugging can.  I use kibble during shaping games or during parts of class where Zumi is going back and forth between me and a helper.  I love using food for a more thinking dog and of course the ability to get in many repetitions in a short time is very easy with food.

Definitely switching between food, toys, and personal play can be a skill that needs to be developed. Many dogs learn to expect a certain reward in a certain place, time, or activity.  Perhaps agility usually means a tug toy and obedience means food.  Or training inside is often a mix of food and personal play and training outside is with a ball launcher.  Trying to use a different reward than your dog expects, even if it's a reward they normally really like, can be difficult.  From their perspective it's not just switching to a possibly lower value reward but it can be actually punishing if they see it as a loss from what they wanted.

Zumi currently needs a lot of work on being able to switch back and forth between food and toys with the current balance leaning towards food.  Depending on your goals and the dog sports you participate in, switching rewards might be very low on the priority list.  Because Zumi is still a puppy and thus much easier to build value for different rewards I am going to try hard not to limit my options.  I do not want Zumi so fixated on the possibility of food that toy play lowers in value just by comparison.  Currently my toy-food-toy practice has been limited to being worked on at home where we have higher success.

I am currently using kibble as a reward for her in class, versus switching to string cheese or other higher valued food rewards, because it works.  I am very happy with the amount of engagement and intensity I am getting from it!  The only downside I see in using kibble is that it can be hard to see on the dark colored mats for thrown rewards.  Switching to a higher valued food reward would give me plenty of options to help with visibility but comes with it's own downsides.

Mainly in that once a higher valued reward is out there, Zumi's food love isn't strong enough to switch back to a lower valued food.  The Corgi and the labs I've raised haven't cared at all.  I'm pretty sure they would be just as excited about pocket lint!  But Zumi wanted nothing to do with me after the instructor decided to switch to string cheese during our turn one week and thus I needed to grab some too.  Even after that exercise and a little bit of time in her crate during a break, Zumi took several minutes before she would work for kibble again eagerly.  I'm sure if I wanted to use a toy after that it would have been impossible seeing that I'm still trying to work on kibble to tug with her.  In general I try and use toy play in the beginning of class while she is most excited about it.  Before she has an opportunity to earn food and "forgets" how much she loves to tug!

On a similar note, I think it's important to remember that you can't use a reward your dog doesn't love!  Personal play (no food, no toys) is not a high enough value yet to be of use with Zumi.  We are still working on developing games she likes and ways of playing that don't involve lots of teeth!  This will be way more important in obedience than in agility.  But I see a lot of people who insist that their dog play tug with them when their dog has zero interest.  Perhaps their dog loves to do it at home, perhaps not.  Working on building a motivator has to be done in an environment where the dog is relaxed.  And the motivator can not be used as a reward if your dog doesn't want it!  Even with Zumi right now who loves to tug, I'm not yet asking her to tug in class as a reward for a behavior once I bring out food (before the food it's a non issue and is a reward!).  I do occasionally attempt some toy play separate from everything else.  More of play with me because it's fun versus play because you earned it.

Kristen  – ( January 28, 2015 at 10:44 AM )  

We're working on some similar things.

What makes it important for you to switch between food and toys, likely different kinds of toys too, but not switch between types of foods?

Laura, Corgi, Toller, & Duck  – ( January 28, 2015 at 1:10 PM )  

You know I've never thought about that!

I generally use kibble for almost all food training sessions with the exception of a trial where they get actual real food. So I personally don't really need my dogs to switch between food rewards. I know Lance would in a heartbeat and any of the labs I raised would. I don't know if Vito would.

Toys I do encourage switching between different ones but I don't usually see as much of a value difference between toys with dogs who love to fetch or tug. Vito certainly has ones he likes more than others but it hasn't been much of an issue as the one I'm holding and interacting with always increases in value from just possessing the toy without me.

I guess in general once I choose a type of reward I don't do much switching between values in that category. But I will go from food to to food depending on what behavior I'm working on and if I want more or less arousal.

Lynnda L in Mpls  – ( January 30, 2015 at 12:49 PM )  

In no particular order comments:
= Switching between food & toys [including high-value food] is one of Ringo's skills I have *most appreciated*! He will tug with treats in the hand holding the toy.
[I do need to work on swinging a toy in my hand while working on agility handling seeing his alternative handler does this.]
= You definitely do not want to OverPay for jobs as it will be more difficult to eventually fade the rewards for competition. I consider going from working for treats [higher value] to doing the same work for lower value kibble to be part of changing/fading rewards.
= Yes, rewards have context [value depends on what else is avaiable]. And the item is not a reward if the subject doesn't value it at the time.
But the good news is that in working type breeds like gun dogs it is not too hard to use Classical Conditioning for activities & objects. Which is why my hunting cocker LOVES guns -- they make BIRDS fall to the ground so he can put The Bird in his mouth [possess it -- Love, Love the birds].
= Change between food or toys of similar value can be helpful for young dogs -- do not discount the value of novelty in rewards. [Particularily for intact adolescent males....]
= At first in new locations/situations you may want to have very short sessions with lots of brief down time.
= Doesn't each dog teach us new things?

Lynnda L in Mpls  – ( January 30, 2015 at 12:51 PM )  

I meant ot add
= Change between food or toys of similar value can be helpful for young dogs -- do not discount the value of novelty in rewards. [Particularily for teenage intact males....]

achieve1dream  – ( January 31, 2015 at 4:47 PM )  

This was a really interesting post!! My dog is very food driven.... seriously, obsessed! He used to have a really strong toy drive too but when I added in high value food rewards they lost their meaning. I think he would still work for toys if there was no food around at all lol. Great information! Thanks for sharing!

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