Understanding K-9 Motivators
Would you wade through sewer if I promised to give you $1? I'm guessing the answer is not only no, it would be heck no. It's just not something you have any interest in doing and $1 offers next to no motivation so it's just not worth it. What if I offered to give you a $1 if you would go to the beach? It's something you want to do anyway, so the $1 doesn't really matter. Sure you'll take the dollar, but your doing something
enjoyable. What if we upped the stakes? Instead of $1 imagine it was $100, or $1,000 or even $1,000,000. At some point the dollar value is likely going to be enough motivation to overcome the "I don't really want to." For different people it will be a different dollar value. It isn't going to take much to motivate you to do something you want to do anyway, but if it's something especially difficult and nasty it will take more of a motivator to get you to do that task. People are motivated by other things then money as well. Dogs do not work for money, but they do work for other motivators. With working dogs, we commonly talk about this as the paycheck concept. Each dog assigns a different value to motivators whether they are food, toys, affection, etc. Each dog also assigns values to specific tasks and just like humans dogs are individuals. Dogs like getting paid (rewarded) for a job well done. The tougher the job, the better the "paycheck" will have to be to motivate the dog to do the task. Just because one dog likes something, doesn't mean another dog will place the same valuation on it. The paycheck needs to be specific to that individual dog's motivators and values. So how do we apply this concept? My young lab, Ellie, is normally pretty motivated by toys and play. She has a specific favorite toy that we hold only for when she is "working". Because she doesn't have access to the toy other then in specific situations the value of the toy has gone up and she gets very excited when the toy comes out. When it was time to start teaching her to climb
the ladder, I pulled out her toy. She took one look at the ladder and one look at the toy and said nope. In this instance replace the ladder with sewer and the toy with $1. To Ellie at this point in time the ladder is a tough nasty job and there is no way I'm trying it for that toy. It's just not worth pushing through for that reward. I then pulled out food. As a typical lab, Ellie values food way higher then any toy I've yet found. I choose a tasty treat she really enjoys. In a manner of minutes Ellie was climbing all the way up the ladder. She had by far the fastest learning curve out of all the dogs I've taught to climb ladders. What changed? The ladder is still scary just as the sewer is still icky. But now Ellie thinks she is getting paid a $1,000,000 jackpot if she will only do that tough job of climbing the ladder. Now the job suddenly becomes very worth tackling, because I'm using a higher value motivator. As Ellie learns the ladder, it becomes less scary and more fun, and I can lower the value of the reward over time. It will slowly stop being the sewer and eventually become a day at the beach. Lets look at another case with Ellie. I hold Ellie back and someone teases her with the toy getting her super amped up and excited. Then that person runs and hides. As soon as I release Ellie she runs as fast as she can, finds the person and barks to indicate she found the person. Her tail is going 100 MPH the entire time. She is super happy to do this job. It is not scary or nasty, it is a day at the beach. For this Ellie's reward is her
normal working toy. It's something she values and enjoys, but she also enjoys her task so we don't need to go up a level on her paycheck for this task. While I won't call her toy the equivalent of a $1 to her as she enjoys it too much, it is not quite the $1,000,000 jackpot we needed for her first exposure to the ladder. I adjusted her reward to suit the task I was asking Ellie to do based on Ellie's valuation of the task and her perceived value of the reward. I also adjusted it based on the criticality of the task. It is critical that as a search dog, Ellie enjoys search work and wants to do her job. One way I can help that process, is to ensure I'm rewarding her good behavior with something she finds valuable. Its a day at the beach, so I don't need to get crazy with my level of reward. But I want to pay her more then $1 to ensure she keeps her motivations to find and wants to keep coming back for more. A day on the beach and $1000, what's not to love? Can we do this task again and again? When training dogs we have to think of each dog as an individual. We have to ask ourselves how difficult is the task I'm asking of this unique individual dog. Am I asking my dog to do something that is comparable to the dog of going into a sewer? Or am I asking my dog to have a day at the beach? If I'm asking the dog for the equivalent to the sewer, I should be prepared to pay out a higher motivating paycheck. Maybe your dog highly values a specific toy? Or a specific type of treat? Maybe even a piece of steak. It's whatever your individual dog values the most. Once the dog gets the hang of the difficult job and starts enjoying it more, the level of reward can gradually be decreased. If it's a day at the beach type task for that dog, maybe all you need is a piece of kibble randomly given to motivate the dog. On certain critical tasks, such as Ellie's foundation search work as well as recalls (a good recall could save your dog's life someday), I usually use at least a moderate level of reward ($100-$1000 paychecks). I also try to mix it up and randomly give them the $1,000,000 jackpots on critical tasks. Everyone likes a nice paycheck bonus here and there and it keeps them coming back for more. I've found over the years thinking in terms of level of task and level of reward helps to develop solid working partners and companions.