Training is a Numbers Game

Last week we discussed a common issue in dog training: the gap between professional and novice dog trainers. Everyone starts out as a novice, and I remember how incredibly frustrating it was to watch my dog perform like a trick pony for the class instructor and then go back to blowing me off when his leash was returned to me. The good news is that training is a skill that can be developed just like any other.

Photo credit: Stu Hill Photography on flickr

Photo credit: Stu Hill Photography on flickr

Returning to our example of a ping-ponging dog, let’s look at the overall picture with both the owner and myself teaching the dog how to walk nicely on leash.

As a reminder, here’s where our hapless owner was at last week: “My student’s dog lunges to the end of the leash, gagging a bit as his collar presses against his windpipe. His owner stops and waits, and within a second her dog moves back towards his owner’s side. The owner takes a step, clicks her dog for walking attentively alongside her, hands her dog a treat, and sighs in frustration as her dog immediately lunges out to the end of the leash again.”

Now, what happens when I take the leash? The first thing I do is to take a minute to get myself and the dog organized. The leash and clicker go in my right hand. If I’m using food rewards, my left hand holds the treats. If I’m using a tug or ball as a reward, this gets tucked up under my right armpit, with my left hand free to grab the toy and swing it into position right after I click. I position the dog at my left side, where I click and reward him several times before ever taking a step. Every time I reward him, I do so by my pant seam, since that’s where I want his head to go. I aim for continuous interaction, rewarding the dog so quickly that he doesn’t have time to get distracted by anything else.

Once the dog is interested in the game we’re playing, we can start adding in movement. I won’t move unless I have attention from the dog, so I look for bright eyes and alert eye contact. I talk to the dog: “Are you ready? Ready…? Let’s go!,” and step off, clicking and rewarding the instant the dog moves with me. He doesn’t have time to dart to the end of his leash, because I’ve rewarded him after just one step.

This sequence gets repeated several times, with me clicking and rewarding for each step as the dog follows me. Within a minute or so, the dog is really getting into the game, and I’m able to take several steps between rewards, telling the dog how brilliant he is for following me. I’m moving quickly, so the dog has to work to stay with me. The rewards continue at a steady pace, and after about a minute of work I stop moving and tell the dog how brilliant he was. In that minute, he never ping-ponged to the end of his leash. He was too busy earning good things!

If you watch the dog’s owner work him and then watch me working him, one huge difference will stand out immediately. That difference is the number of rewards that the dog receives for one minute of work.

Here’s a secret: good trainers are generous. We give a lot of feedback in a short amount of time. Most novice trainers tend to reward about three times a minute. I reward about ten times that.

To those new to training, this can seem a bit horrifying at first. That’s a lot of treats if you train with food, or a lot of work if you train with toys! If we look at it a bit more critically, though, it’s actually a very efficient use of our training time.

Here’s the thing: in one minute, I can accomplish the same amount of learning that would take a novice trainer ten minutes to accomplish. Furthermore, I can do so without the dog making nearly as many mistakes. And since I’m giving the dog more feedback, he learns more quickly, and I can ultimately fade the food or toy rewards faster.

You see, training is a bit of a numbers game, and that means that smart trainers use generosity to their advantage. Every behavior will take a certain number of repetitions for your dog to learn. Those repetitions can either happen over the course of 10 one-minute training sessions (using 30 rewards a minute) or 20 five-minute training sessions (using three rewards a minute), but either way, there’s no getting around the fact that they need to happen.

If there’s one skill that makes trainers in my Beginning Obedience classes the most successful, it’s their ability to be generous. It’s better to train in short bursts with lots of rewards than to train for long periods and be stingy. When I’m training a new puppy or newly adopted adult dog, I will often feed the dog continuously just for looking at me in a new location. This sort of interaction quickly creates a dog who won’t take their eyes off me, even if the midst of lots of distractions. Once I have the dog’s undivided attention, it’s easy enough to begin weaning them off the rewards. The hard work of building the behavior has already been done, and just like building a strong foundation for a house, the structure needs to be solid. If I didn’t reward as generously, it would take much longer to pour the foundation for attention, and along the way my dog would probably make quite a few more mistakes which would set our training back even further, weakening that foundation.

So, how can you become a more generous trainer? I suggest that you start by finding out where your baseline is. Train your dog for one minute, and see how many rewards you go through. Then, count out two more treats than you used before and train for another minute, seeing if you can get through all of the rewards before your timer goes off. As you practice with your dog, you’ll find that your ability to reward your dog quickly and generously improves.

Next week we’ll discuss more ways in which you can use rewards to increase your dog’s compliance. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think! What rewards does your dog work the very best for? Which behaviors did you struggle to train when you were just starting out, only to find that becoming more generous made all the difference? Please share your experiences and questions in the comments below!

13 responses to “Training is a Numbers Game

  1. LOVE IT – thank you for the reminder. Date: Mon, 2 Jun 2014 11:02:08 +0000 To: ruthwozniak@hotmail.com

  2. Always a good reminder! The trick is finding those super awesome amazing rewards. Pretty much everything (from kibble on up) works for us at home, but once we go out the door it’s hard to find anything “good enough.” Hot dog or pepperoni works sometimes…but cheese, pork roast, commercial treats, squeezy cheese, carrots, whatever else we’ve tried just doesn’t hold his attention. Maybe we need to focus on things more inside before expecting them outside? If he’s more “trained” on what he’s supposed to do, he’ll be more willing to take treats?

  3. What a great article! Thanks so much.

  4. Most certainly agree… definitely need to understand the reasoning and acquire the skill of rewarding more!!! : )

    I started to feel as if my skills were lacking… why was I suddenly going against what I “thought” was the goal, the fewer treats needed the better?

    Looking back, I’m glad I put no thought into it while in the moment, and just went with the flow; more treats were needed and at a faster pace… realizing rewarding more became necessary as I began working with more challenging issues. Bigger goals, more difficult to achieve, higher rewards.

    If it were only that easy, right? : )

    Love, love, love all of your articles!!!! Lori

  5. I’m sure this will work, but i also see the point in people not wanting to make themselves a “treat-machine”. In half a sentence, you mention toys to be an alternative reward to food. I’m missing the point on how to use toys for such frequent rewards? The dog may need half a second to swallow whatever treat, but rewarding with a game (which is in my opinion indeed a dog’s interaction with the owner) just takes a lot more time, and thus cannot be given that frequent.

    Another point: Usually, you do not only train a puppy to walk nicely on leash, you also have to actually walk your puppy – to meet people, dogs, cats, simply to introduce him to the world! You cannot reward him 20 times a minute on a 20 minutes walk, can you? And most probably he will lunge sometime while the things you show him will be interesting.

    So, after all, I just don’t think it is as easy as you make it sound, simply because the world puppy needs to get to know is just not that sterile as a training ground.

  6. Beate, I was in Basic Obedience with Sarah when my puppy was 6 months old and yes, we went through a LOT of treats but Xena came out knowing what was expected of her. She knew to focus on me rather than the distractions. And yes, it was very easy. We just had to have an arsenal of treats until she got the hang of it because she needed the extra focus to distract her from the distractions. They don’t need to be full size treats either. We generally would go through a sandwich size bag of treats for my 50 lbs dog in an hour (I just substitute it for her dinner so she doesn’t get too many calories). The pieces are very small. A single hot dog is cut into 8 strips and then diced so that you get about 50-60 treats out of it. I generally do 3-4 items like this and then some of her regular dog kibble mixed in to get the volume I need. So it takes her a long time to get through all the treats even when I am dishing out 20/minute. She learned much faster with this method than my start and stop that I was doing on my own. You go through a LOT of treats to start and then wean them down. Xena rarely gets treats now except in new training but she still behaves on her learned behaviors. It really is just as easy as she makes it sound. When your dog is focused on you, it doesn’t matter how many distractions are around even when the training ground used is anything but void of distractions. And unless you have private training, I’ve never seen a training class with no distractions.

  7. Walking on the heel should take no more than one 5 to 10 minitue session , with no treats

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