Friday, January 9, 2009

Jackpot - Part 2

The need for jackpot training became apparent when I started training Katie for Utility obedience.

In Novice and Open level obedience, I played on my dogs’ good will to continue working with the hope of a treat. Generally we qualified the three required times with minimum attempts (with the exception of Travis who offered "creative" open obedience exercises and tortured me a few extra times for the third Open leg). We were done and ready to move to the next level before my greyhounds became “ring savvy”. Ring savvy is when the dog figures out that there are no treats to be had in the ring, so there is no sense in working all that hard.

Well, Utility Dog exercises are so much more difficult. Exercises call for responding to signals from across the ring, complex heeling patterns, directed retrieving and jumping, scent work, and go outs. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done with a dog.

Katie earned her Novice title in 3 tries, Open in 5 tries, and Utility in 25 tries. Entering the ring 25 times (not to mention the 8 times at the lower levels) gave Katie plenty of opportunities to figure out that she would not be receiving any treats in the show ring. The secret was out. Thus the need for jackpot training.

Between exercises in an obedience class, you are allowed to praise, so I used to praise excessively because I was nervous and without any food..... thinking that my awkward praise made up for not having what she really wanted. However, after entering the Utility ring so many times, I learned that even with a delayed food reinforcement, Katie was still not looking for affection as a reward. I learned that just a small touch, a word of praise, the appreciation in my heart, and most importantly… rushing to do the next exercise was what Katie needed. She knew the jackpot awaited her and she did not need to insulted with lots of affection between exercises.

I am not saying that other dogs do not love lots of praise and excitement between exercises. Some do and need it to be successful. I just want to point out that affection is not what every dog wants and in some cases too much of it might be a deterrent.

For example, have you ever watched an excited person praise a small dog? Its not pretty :-). Often the small dog is physically moved when a person places their hand on the dog for petting. I see it all of the time in beginner, all-breed obedience classes. The puppy or the small dog comes when called and the happy person physically rubs the dog in a manner that physically rocks the dog back and forth.

One side effect to my jackpot approach is that Katie tended to rush exercises in an attempt to get things done quicker and this sometimes led to mistakes. There is not a perfect answer. Training is not a science, but more of an art. My preference was to work through her hastiness since she was working happy and willingly. I just had to remind her to to keep it smart.

Photos: Katie showing in utility in Chattanooga TN. Top: Bringing back the correct scent article. Bottom: Heeling & signal exercise.