Dogs outsmart their owners on a regular basis, which in turn will more often than not result in unwanted behavior. Why is that? For beginners, human and canine nature is very different, even though many dog owners tend to ignore this fact by projecting their own feelings and expectations on their four-legged friend (anthromorphism). Likewise, humans do not remotely scrutinize, memorize and associate every aspect of their dog’s being to the extent that dogs do the same with us. And most humans are creatures of habit. Why are we so boring with our dogs and how does this relate to dog training?

We have covered the basics and the power of positive reinforcement before. Now imagine yourself at a casino where you can choose between two types of slot machines. The first will take a $10 deposit for 10 plays, and every time you pull the lever it spits out $1. The second machine also takes a $10 deposit for 10 plays. However, each play returns something different: Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes you get 50 cents, $1 or $3, and on rare occasions you get $250. There is a sign on the machine stating that at times it returns either $1,000 or $10,000. Which machine would you play?

When you keep rewarding your dog for the same behavior in the same manner, he starts predicting your actions – very fast, and when you become predictable your rewards end up predicting unwanted behavior. Your dog learns to make decisions based on your future behavior. If he knows what reward to expect, he can decide things like ‘Is it good enough’, or ‘Is it worth it’. If there are distractions, he learns to do the bare minimum to get the reward and then engaging with whatever interests him.

In training, while consistency and predictability are paramount in giving our words meaning (‘sit’ means ‘sit’ and is good behavior), to achieve peak performance, our rewards can’t become predictable or boring.  We have to keep our dogs in the dark reward-wise, and keep them guessing. Even more important, the promise of a ‘jackpot’ has to remain dangling in front of them. The reward schedule is unpredictable and the promise of something amazing is always there. If we can accomplish that, we can achieve levels of focus and engagement that we once thought were inconceivable. 

So how do you do that? In brief, vary the type of reward; vary the amount of any particular reward; vary the value and vary the reinforcement. By changing these things around constantly, you combat the mindset of the dog who wonders, ‘Is this really worth it’, as he never really knows what he’s going to get. And because he never knows, his focus remains peaked, ever hoping for that jackpot game of tug he so craves. Just quit allowing your dog to outsmart you and stop the boring and predictable play.