Well, when it comes to teaching behaviors in the most positive way, it is absolutely important that you know what is of great value to your pet. Training for me is all about choice. I don’t take away that power from the animal, instead I work to make the wanted choice the most valuable and easiest choice for the animal.
If you take time to observe your pet and really take note of what it is that just makes his day – thinking in terms of food, activity and the environment – it will give you a running start to setting you and your pet up for success. But more than that, with so many options to offer in the lesson plan as an outcome for a behavior – think about how totally awesome that is for your student.
But here is the thing, it is not enough to just know what gets that tail wagging or that bird stepping up. Once you’ve got that list, go back through your list and rank your items.
A = over the top value
B = valued unless there is something better available
C = will choose in certain, ideal conditions
D = your dog will only choose once in awhile
Why is this important? Well, remember, animals will choose to do behaviors that have the highest value outcome. When you begin teaching a simple behavior in an environment with no or minimal distraction, a dog biscuit or low value toy will probably be enough of an incentive for your pet to choose to do the behavior. (There may be other factors involved, however, in your pet not getting the lesson plan such as too large of approximations or poor timing on delivery of the reinforcement – but for the sake of this post I’ll focus on the reinforcers only.)
However, as your dog does the behavior reliably in a particular environment and it is time to begin proofing, or teaching the behavior in a variety of settings with a variety of criteria, you may be adding distractions. Those distractions will be competing with you as a valued outcome of a behavior. If you want your pet to choose to focus on you, you will need to increase the value of the reinforcer. (Please click here to read my post on proofing behavior.)
As an example, I have been working with our family dog, Sam, on his loose leash walking skills. (And I am strengthening my skills too, continuing my education online with a trainer I look up to – Pam Johnson.) When I practiced with him inside my parents’ house, I used plain dog crackers. When I began working with him on their semi-quiet neighborhood street, I brought with us a variety of processed cold cuts mixed with the dog crackers and cheese. Tonight we were ready to walk around the cars in a strip center, and what I packed in my bag was the real deal – pieces of juicy left over chicken from dinner (warmed together with the other food).
If Sam was a border collie or another dog who placed a lot of value on tugging, I would have brought a tug toy to mix in with my bag of reinforcers.