How valuable are your rewards?

Updated: Aug 8

By Melissa Wallace, PhD, CPDT-KA

In the last blog, we discussed the right size for dog treats. Today I will share information about placing value on your rewards whether food or toys.

Would you bungee jump for $5? What about $50,000? $500,000? We inherently place value on things. The value doesn’t even need to be monetary. Would you trade your chocolate ice cream for triple fudge chocolate brownie ice cream? I would!!! Some chocoholics would trade. Others like their ice cream pure and simple.

Animals also place value on things. Many dogs do not find running as fast as they can across 20 obstacles rewarding, preferring to sunbathe on the deck. Throw a border collie in a field of sheep, and some of them would get so focused on the sheep that their handler may as well not exist. In agility training, we are trying to make agility and working with us valuable to our dogs. We do this by transferring value from something a dog wants (like food/toys) to the obstacles or running the course with us.

There is a lot of information out there on how this works, including true research studies. If you are interested in the scientific aspect of animal training, just look up Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, Bob Bailey or the Brelands. You can also visit the APDT website. If there is interest in this science, comment below, and I will write a blog on it. I love the science of the whole endeavor since I am a researcher.

Different rewards have a different value between dogs. One dog may go bonkers over cheese while another would prefer a jerky treat. So the jerky dog places a lower value on the cheese. In agility training we need to have at least 5 uniquely different treats that have different value. We should also have at least 5 toys with different value to your dog, even if your dog isn’t particularly interested in toys.

Why 5 of each? Well, it is a completely arbitrary number. HAH! I say at least 5 because I want to have some higher value treats for particular circumstances. I tend to reserve the most favored treats for use only at dog shows. Remember that the dog has to postpone his reward for a longer period of time at a trial run; so I give them something REALLY good. Fajita steak works well. No fajita steak for the bedtime snack.

Why uniquely different? I don’t want you to just list beef jerky, turkey jerky, lamb jerky… Unless the dog displays some incredibly different reaction between those, they are essentially the same thing. Here is my list: Starry Liam Treats Toys Treats Toys Hot dogs No stuffing squirrel Cesar’s Dog Food (Doggie Crack) Crinkling toy Cheese Tiny Squirrel Cheese Socks Fajita Steak Camel squeaky Hamburger Tiny Squirrel Hamburger meat Lamb Chop Freeze-dried Mixers Toilet paper cardboard Freeze-dried Mixers Lotus Ball Tender Bites Lotus ball Tender Bites Mini Bites Cesar’s Dog Food (Doggie Crack) Real Meat Jerky Mini Bites Real Meat Jerky

Right off the bat, you can see that my two dogs do not have the same list. Many items are on both dogs’ lists, but they have different value. I can now plan a strategy for which item I use for which training. For example, neither of my dogs trust the teeter, so in training I have higher value reward for that. Since my dogs are more food motivated, I would try hamburger. By starting at hamburger, I have room to move up in value if they continue to have difficulty. Again for the most part, I reserve the most valuable treats for highly distracting or stressful places, like at trials. They can both jump with little reward, so I may choose to go with meat jerky or mini bites for short sequences in training.

Now it is time for you to create your lists. Share them below or with your instructor. This is good information to know about your dog.