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Keep it Interesting

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Varying rewards for fast, effective training sessions

Ever clicker train a Border collie?

Sure, a collie likes a greasy piece of hot dog as much as the next dog, but it's the game of how to get you to give him that piece of hot dog that he really enjoys. And if the bit of hot dog he expects turns out to be a surprise-a crunchy chunk of dried liver or a game of tug, or even the cue to perform his favorite trick of spinning-wow, the game just got much more interesting. And keeping a collie's interest is the key to training one.

While Border collies are highly allergic to boredom, they're not all that different from other breeds in that most dogs find an interesting training session, one with a few surprises, far more motivating than a dull one.

There are many ways to keep training sessions exciting, whether you're working with a dog or a cat or a llama. One of the easiest is to vary your reinforcers (not to be confused with varying the reinforcement schedule-see Extinction and Intermittent Reinforcement for more information). Next time you prepare for a training session, put a supply of your standard treats in one bowl, something really special and rare in another (roast chicken bits?), and a tug toy or ball to throw beside the bowls of food treats.

Then observe. Ask for six repetitions of an established behavior, clicking and rewarding with your standard treat. Repeat with another set of six repetitions, alternating between your standard treat, the special treat, and a one-minute game of tug or retrieve as the reinforcer. As the game becomes more interesting and surprising, the offered behavior is likely to become stronger and more reliable.

"Being a good trainer means being able to motivate the dog, and part of that is using the right reinforcer for the job."

Experiment with this process during free shaping sessions as well (see 101 Things to Do with a Box by Karen Pryor for how to get started free shaping). Choose one behavior to free shape using one kind of reinforcer. Then choose another behavior to free shape using a variety of reinforcers throughout the session. Which behavior is shaped more quickly and reliably? I'll bet you ten pieces of greasy hot dog that it will be the one trained with varied reinforcers.

Melissa Alexander, author of Click for Joy! Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs, emphasizes the importance of adding a variety of rewards-whether food, toys, games, or permission to chase a squirrel-to your training. "Having a dog who truly enjoys and will work for a variety of reinforcers gives the trainer so much increased flexibility. When choosing a reinforcer, always keep your dog's preferences in mind." (See 101 Reinforcers for an extensive list provided by trainer and ClickerExpo faculty member Steve White.)

"So often," Alexander continues, "The trainer chooses the reinforcer he would prefer to use-the one he has available, the one that's small and not messy, or the quiet one-but it's not really what your dog wants. Being a good trainer means being able to motivate the dog, and part of that is using the right reinforcer for the job."

Now, if you'll excuse me, my Border collie is getting bored watching me sit at the computer. Time for a clicker training session.

Webmaster's note:
Need some interesting treats? Have a look at these. For an interesting session for your dog, try mixing the all-natural dried liver treats from BRAVO with the newest TOTS or the perennially favorite Charlee Bears. All these treats are both delicious, healthy, and have many if not all of the characteristics that can make a clicker-training treat easy to use (bite-sized, no crumble, non-greasy, etc). For new fun behaviors to teach, check out the Click a Trickâ„¢ card set. For carrying your treats, our Treat/Training Bags, are an indispensable piece of summer gear.

About the author
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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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