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Increasing the Time Between Rewards

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

Besides having the dog comfortable with working when rewards at a distance, we want to gradually focus on how much work the dog is asked to do before rewarding them.  

There are multiple ways you can work on getting "more" work.  Backchaining is a frequent method used to get the dog more comfortable with longer periods of work. The idea is to train a specific sequence of behaviors and gradually add one more task to the start of each sequence- for example in novice obedience you might set up for a recall then reward.  Then heeling-recall-reward, then stand for exam-heeling- recall-reward, etc etc.  The order is always the same in novice so backchaining may make sense for your team.

I personally don't back chain exercises as I enjoy mixing up exercises from different classes and even mix up routines within an exercise so the dog is always thinking (ie I do random signal orders of sit-down-stand or do signals after a drop on recall....)  I don’t want to train just for novice or just for open or even just for utility once you’re at that level.  I want my dog just as happy to do doodling work of various exercises as they are to do an official obedience order.

When working on this there are a few main pieces I want you to keep in mind:

1. Units of effort.

With a young dog I might work the rewards at a distance pretty early in their training history, however since everything is pretty hard for them, I reward almost at a 1:1 ratio!  I do not prioritize duration of total work without a reward for quite a long time! 

However, I will look at adjusting what behaviors I’m rewarding as things get easier for the dog.    Doing a nice tucked sit might be quite hard at first, but over time that should become second nature and shouldn’t need a cookie for each sit!  The amount of effort required is very low.  When you start to add in some proofing or go to different environments, that effort required might jump up several levels and should be paid as such!

Breaking Patterns:

Take a hard look at your training and look to see if you have any areas you naturally want to reward every single time even if it’s now an area your dog finds easy.  A common place in obedience is at the end of each finish!  Ask yourself WHAT are you rewarding? Are you rewarding an exceptionally precise swing into heel position? Was the dog faster than normal?

Next ask yourself if there is another time that might better convey the effort you DO want to reward.  If for example you’re working on heeling and you loved how hard the dog was focusing on you when you did that about turn in front of a distracting person, give your marker cue/rewards right at that moment! Don’t heel some more and then reward at a halt where many of us like to usually feed!  

And if the heeling was amazing but you’ve worked hard and it’s usually amazing?!  Praise your dog but focus on switching from rewarding the actual behaviors (outside of proofing sessions or precision “drilling” sessions) and work on rewarding your dog for general flow or for the setup for the next exercise.

2. Flow and Games

We can build up how long the dog is working by practicing flowing smoothly from one activity to another without a formal reward. The easiest way to think about this is to get rid of all the normal "stopping" in an activity and think of a way to keep the dog moving. If you have taken the "obility" course (in the retired courses from Denise) you are very familiar with this concept!

Skills that make it easy to flow into other work:

  • Out around a cone

  • Going through your legs

  • Sending to a target of some sort.

In the below video is Zumi and then Vito working on several skills in a short time. Zumi demonstrates heeling games, down in motion, position changes, a go out, directed send, and a retrieve all in under 1 minute. Vito demonstrates similar skills in the second half of the video, using a prop for position changes.

The video above utilized skills beyond the novice level as typically adding in more motion based behaviors make it more fun!  Even if your dog only knows the novice exercises, you can add games to your heeling.  Jump over to the lecture on Heeling: Balancing Attitude and Precision and scroll down to some games including high hand touches, spins, and chase games!  Flow from formal heeling to a game, and back to formal heeling.

A good rule of thumb is that half the time you feel like handing over a cookie, throw in a game instead.  If every 10 steps of heeling you start to feel twitchy and want to reach into your pocket, cue a high hand touch and run away from your dog, then do at least 5 more steps of heeling before rewarding!  

Here Grace isn’t old enough to really have much duration, but I am introducing the idea of expecting a high hand touch in there and then going back into more “heeling”.  This will set the stage later on to get more steps of heeling sandwiched between games!  I don’t run here after the hand touch as that would be too much excitement for her to recover from. (Try to ignore the toddler!  And unsure why the sound cuts out!):

3. Emphasize Setups and Transitions over Exercises

Reward setups over finishes. When your dog finishes an exercise, praise and move with connection to the start of a new exercise before setting up and then breaking out to reward/play.  This gets your dog more excited to start work again vs expecting the reward just because they "finished" an exercise. 

We will talk about purely practicing setups and transitions in another lecture so you know how you’re going to handle your dog in a trial!  

4. Runthroughs*

 It’s actually pretty rare that I practice multiple exercises together with all the formal pieces of fronts, finishes, setups, pauses, etc.  It can be a lot of pressure on the dog and I don’t think the practice of the full routine outweighs that huge withdrawal from their reinforcement rate.  That being said, you should practice all those pieces separately.  Practice how you will move between exercises, your setups, your silence during heeling, looking at the judge for the next cue, etc (note: all these are in separate lectures!)....  And when those are solid, then start to combine a few of those pieces into the exercises themselves. 

When I start to combine formal exercises I may still break out the dog early.  Perhaps I go from formal heeling to breaking out the dog mid pattern and practice my transition to the figure 8.  Do a creative figure 8 of circling an imaginary 3rd post or doing an about turn somewhere, etc.  Then practice transitioning for a recall or stand for exam.  And then finally give the first reward at the setup for that exercise.  The more mini exercises you throw in with transitions, the more places your dog has to think about the lack of reward.  

In a few days I will be starting a new class at FDSA called Novice Smart: Preparing for Dog's First Trial. If you're looking at competing with your dog in the obedience ring in the next year, and you feel like you have a good start on the actual exercises, come join us for more ring prep work like this as well as work on polishing up the exercises themselves!

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