Higher Value Treats are Rarely The Best Option for Getting More Attention

Updated: Jan 17

I video a lot of my training, and I share many of those videos in different places - to help answer questions, or maybe get feedback on an issue I'm having. There are a couple of comments that come up time and again about Ripley - one is how his tail never stops wagging, and the other is about the level of attention he gives me. He gives me ALL his focus; watching and listening to see what we're doing next.

A liver spaniel on a platform looking up at the handler standing next to him
All the attention, all the time!

It would probably surprise many people to know that most of my training is done with what most would consider 'low value' treats - I usually use a high-quality, small-bite kibble (Fish4Dogs at the moment). I use the same treats in pretty much every environment, and I still get the same level of focus and enthusiasm.

This has not come easily. Anyone that has known Ripley since I got him knows the struggles I've been through. It's not been plain sailing, but he's taught me so much along the way. I already touched on some of our struggle in my previous post. Now I want to add in a bit more information.

Once I finally listened to him, and understood that toys were not reinforcing in a training context, I started learning how to use treats more effectively. I learned all about reinforcement strategies. Most of us get into the routine of just feeding treats straight to our dog's mouth, and for many that's just fine. For others it gets a bit boring - they like the treats well enough, but having them dispensed in this way is almost too easy. Behaviours start to deteriorate, or they simply check out of training sessions. They ignore cues, choose to carry on sniffing rather than coming back when we ask. Sound familiar?

Dog looking up with a person putting a treat in their mouth
Do you just 'post' treats into your dog's mouth?

So what's the solution? I'll tell you straightaway that it is NOT reaching for 'higher value' treats - that's a road we really don't want to get stuck on. That's not to say I never use higher value treats - the difference is that I use them because I want to, and not because I have to. What we do need to do is to get more creative with how we use our treats! This was one of the biggest changes I made - I became more interesting than anything else around. We learned lots of ways to play with food, and we 'named' a lot of these games. So whilst I became less predictable in how I delivered the reinforcer, I gave clarity by telling him what I would do - these cues are known as Location Specific Markers (LSM). For example, if I say 'catch' then I'm going to throw a treat for him - you should be able to see his understanding as he shifts his weight back a little in anticipation of the catch.

These games also introduced us to delayed reinforcement. It doesn't matter whether or not I have treats on my person or nearby, Ripley trusts that I will provide reinforcement even if we have to go somewhere else to get it - short distances to start, building to bigger distances as he learned the game. And because everything between the marker and the delivery of the reinforcer also gets reinforced, I get even more attention!

This is a BIG topic, and not one that I can really do justice to with a blog post. It's safe to say that reinforcement strategies will be amongst the first things I teach any future dog. However, it's never to late to up your game, and I'm here to help you do that - you can find out what I'm talking about here. It's just £5...

Happy training,

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