Level Up: What Dog Trainers Can Learn From Mafia Wars

Zynga is a company that produces online games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, Café World, and Cityville for social media and mobile devices. People are subject to the same laws of learning as animals, and the producers of these games understand behavior very well. Good dog trainers also understand the laws of learning and behavior, and a good trainer could model their training program after Zynga’s games and be quite successful.

So, what does Zynga do well, and how can you use the same concepts to train your dog?

First of all, every Zynga game starts off very easy. Players are rewarded for nearly every click of the mouse with positive feedback (praise), points, leveling up, or coins. In the beginning stages, just a few minutes of play can result in a player moving up several levels. This feeling of accomplishment is highly rewarding to most people. Furthermore, Zynga helps the new player be successful by prompting him or her to engage in certain actions.

Similarly, we should always make it easy for our dogs to “win” when they are learning a new behavior. In the beginning stages of teaching a new behavior, the dog should be rewarded every time they are successful, and the trainer should be doing everything possible to make the environment conducive to learning.

Once the player understands the basic structure of the game, Zynga fades the prompts. By this time, continued prompts would just become annoying rather than helpful.

With dog training, it’s important to fade any prompts as soon as the dog is starting to get an idea of what they should do. If a lure or target was used to jump-start the behavior, the trainer should stop using it after 3-5 successful repetitions so the dog doesn’t become reliant on it. Once the dog has demonstrated the correct behavior a few times, the environment should be changed slightly so that the dog learns to respond in a variety of situations. For example, after a dog has sat in front of the owner a few times, the owner could change their own position by sitting, kneeling, or lying down, or change the orientation of their body so that the dog sits beside or behind them rather than in front.

Zynga also understands how to use a variety of rewards. In Zynga games, the player can earn various “rewards” for different behaviors. These rewards could be points, which accumulate in a meter. Once the meter fills up, the player moves up to the next level. Certain parts of the game are unlocked at each level. The player can also earn “coins,” which can be used to “purchase” different items for the game.

In dog training, it is equally important to use a variety of rewards. Trainers who rely solely on treats may find that their dog will only work for food. Trainers who also use toys, play, praise, and real-life rewards such as the opportunity to chase a squirrel, the chance to sniff an interesting area of grass, or permission to play with other dogs will get much more reliable behavior long-term.

Lastly, Zynga uses a variable schedule of reinforcement and continues to challenge the player. A game that never got any harder would quickly become boring. Zynga understands this, and increases the difficulty with each level. All Zynga games also utilize jackpots, where the player is suddenly rewarded for completing a challenge with an extra-large reward, such as a larger-than-normal amount of coins or points, or a special item.

Good dog trainers also continue to challenge their dogs and vary their rewards unpredictably. Behaviors become stronger when the subject is always guessing about whether “this time” will pay off big. Consider how long you would press buttons at a slot machine versus a soda machine if nothing came out the first time you tried the button. We understand that the slot machine may not pay off every time we use it, but there’s always hope that “next time” will be the time we’ll hit it big. With a  soda machine, we know that if it doesn’t dispense a soda the first time we push the button, it’s not likely to do so if we try again.

Dogs who earn the same reward every time they perform a behavior will quickly give up if rewards stop coming. However, if your dog never knows which reward they’ll earn next time, they’re willing to keep trying much longer. A skilled trainer uses jackpots such as a larger quantity of treats, an especially long game of chase, or the chance to run off-leash in the woods. These occasional jackpots will strengthen behavior, since the dog will always wonder if next time he responds to his trainer might be the time he earns another jackpot.

Zynga games quickly build strong behaviors. Players find themselves clicking the mouse in various targeted ways many times for a single reward. Likewise, a skilled trainer can build strong behaviors in her dog, culminating in a dog who will work for a long time for no reward because he’s
come to enjoy the game. Your dog may not care about having the toughest mob, the neatest café, or the biggest farm, but he does care about having fun with you and playing the clicker game. Use this to your advantage to Level Up your dog’s training skills.

ETA: want more? Check out this great post on how dog training is like Angry Birds!

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