Sunday, 16 January 2011

Treat or Toy?

Before I write more about my experiences of training my greyhounds I want to add a post on rewards and motivation. I learned obedience training with my dachsie Bilbo many years ago, when he was a pup. When you start training dogs early in their lives they very quickly get the idea of rewards, so it feels almost natural. However, with my two adopted retired racing greyhounds, I realized they actually had no concept of getting a reward for obedience. That is, before I even started to train them, I had to get them to understand the idea that if they did something for me, they would get a reward. It wasn’t hard, but it was key.
I have found that my greys in general are not very persistent when it comes to getting a treat. If I gave them Kongs, or other toys with hidden treats, they soon gave up with a disappointed face seemingly saying “it’s not working, this treat is broken”. I suppose they have had no real experience of doing things for rewards, whether obedience or games. Their food always has always come in bowls at feeding time. I have worked on this by playing with them, encouraging them to stick with a game or toy for a reward. Eddie has got the idea, and will now keep on trying if he is in the mood. Cassie still has a way to go, but is getting more curious and persistent.
I found that a good game to encourage them to work, mentally and physically, for a treat is hiding sausages under cups. When I first tried this, both Eddie and Cassie would be very keen on the sausage bits, but when they disappeared under the cups they would just blankly stare. I had to let them have lots of peaks. Then help them out by turning over the cups myself at the slightest touch of the nose. Eventually they got the idea: if I turn over the cup, I’ll get the sausage. Or: an action leads to a reward.
In addition, the simplest, and most essential, obedience work - teaching them their names - planted the idea of following a "command" for a reward in their minds. Neither Eddie nor Cassie – the latter who we renamed – knew their names when they came to us. This soon changed when they got a bit of sausage each time I said it. This naturally extended into recall training, more of which elsewhere. However, when it came to recall I realized another important thing about rewards. Not all dogs are equally food motivated. Eddie was, and I do all of his training with treats. However, Cassie’s interest in food seemed to wane in the big outdoors. When she is in an environment where there is a possibility of running and hunting, she scorns most treats – even sausages. Eddie also found the big outdoors too exciting for treats at first, but once he figured out the idea of a reward he started actively looking for what I wanted him to do. Cassie, who is a more independent soul, didn’t seem to care to much about what I wanted when there were fields to run in, even when she started to get the idea at home. So my recall training with her hit a bit of a snag.
Until, that is, she found the ultimate squeaky toy at a visit to my in-laws and their two dogs Millie (Border Collie) and Izzy (Tibetan Terrier). Cassie fell in love with a little orange dinosaur made out of tough rubber. She could play with it for hours, running around with it, and eventually settling down to squeak it. Incessantly. Needless to say I purchased such a toy immediately.

I know that many working dogs such as sniffer and rescue dogs, are trained using play with a toy as reward. So I tried using "dino", as he is now known, as a reward for recall instead of treats, and it worked a treat! It has the added bonus of the squeak, which will bring Cassie running back immediately (although I am careful not to replace my command with a squeak). If she comes back to me when called she gets to play with the toy for a while. Of course, if you give her the toy, she runs off with it. So most of the time I just let her mouth the toy while keeping it my hand, giving her longer to play occasionally, to keep her interested and motivated. Also, I have a back-up toy: she will always want the one she doesn’t have!
I also used the toy with her to reinforce the “down” command (more of which here) when outside where she would ignore treats. Usually, treats work indoors, if they are tasty enough, although Cassie, unlike Eddie who will eat everything he can get his paws on, has her moods when it comes to food. However, she is always keen on a squeaky. On the other hand, Eddie has virtually zero interest in the rubber squeaky. He has the ocassional play with a soft, furry squeaky toy, but even so gets bored pretty quickly. Treats is where it is at with him.
I think finding out what makes your greyhound (or any dog) tick is central to successful training – dogs do have different personalities, and are motivated by different things. That is one reason I have not used clicker training (also, when I learned obedience back in the prehistoric era, I never heard of it). However, having read the excellent Never Say Never Greyhounds blog, I am now considering trying clicker training with my two. Jennifer has trained her greyhounds to do things that greyhounds are not “meant” to be good at, such as fetch and agility, using clicker training. Clicker training usually depends on treats, though. Certainly, as Jennifer has advised, finding the right delicious treat is important, but I also wonder, since the click basically stands in for a reward, if it can’t be used with play rewards? Keep tuned for reports on how I get on.

1 comment:

Never Say Never Greyhounds said...

Thanks for plugging my blog. That is great you found a toy that is very motivating for training. You might tie a rope to it so you can drag it around a bit as a reward and so she can play with it, but not actually run off with it.