Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jackpot Training

As requested, here are my thoughts on training the "jackpot" concept to a performance dog. As always, my experience is limited to greyhounds. If you are someone that wants to use positive reinforcement for training primarily, it is important for the dog to understand that there is a light at the end of the tunnel..... especially if you plan to compete.

First, I want my jackpot rewards to last as long as possible. Since dogs do not savor, I make it a habit not to give them a handful of treats all at once. It does not matter if I am handing out 3 treats or 10 treats. Either way, I am going to feed each treat deliberately one at a time. If I am handing out something particularly good (smells great), I will even hang onto the treat for an extra second or 2 under her nose as the dog tries to nibble. I want them to have a chance to smell the treat and know I'm not just passing out kibble.

Lets use heeling as an example. Currently, Riley gets a click and a treat for almost everything..... a turn, change of speed, a halt, 3 good steps, etc. However, Reagan is a little further in her training and will tend to offer heeling for a slightly longer period of time. Instead of clicking and treating for every good thing she does, I start to use a little verbal praise to let her know she is on the right track and then at some point (before she quits on me) I will stop to give her several treats. Think of it as saving the treats up. Reagan might do a nice left turn, stay with me when I speed up, about turn, and halt.... instead of giving her 4 treats throughout the exercise, I save them up for at the end. I still use a clicker at this stage, but will only click when I am ready to give the jackpot and when she does something noteworthy to end on. Make sure you vary the stopping point. For example, do not always end heeling with a sit.... end during a nice straight line, a tight about turn, or a sharp change of pace.

Over time you build on that. You ask for a longer heeling pattern. Eventually you ask for another fully trained exercise. And then a third. For regular obedience, you also have to start practicing with less talk and praise during the exercise so your dog isn't surprised with you become emotionally challenged in the ring.

When it is time to built up to doing a couple of exercises before rewarding, I might move to using a jackpot container that I sometimes hide and sometimes don't. Either way, I want my dog to learn that she does not get the jackpot until I release her or take her to it. In the past, I have always said "jackpot" and then put my hand on the collar (even if I let go immediately) before going to the reward. This has kept my hounds from thinking they should search for the jackpot or leave the ring without me. It also encourages them to wait to be leashed before we rush over to the jackpot.

On a side note, even when I am working with a jackpot container, I will still carry treats in my pocket. You just never know when an exercise will completely fall apart and you will need to assist your dog with.

It is important to stay random. When Katie was full trained and competing 2 years ago, some days we did just a lot of click and treat for tiny details. Some days I did all of the obedience exercises for a huge jackpot (no clicker). Sometimes we worked on the details of 2 exercises with a clicker, but then did a jackpot for the other 3 (no clicker). I always kept her guessing.

Lastly, during a long jackpot session (5 minutes, for example), I have had my greyhounds start to cut corners or get sloppy because they are trying to hurry. You just have to work through it. Show the dog that making a mistake doesn't work because you have to do the exercise again.

Let me know if there are any questions.