Winning Big with the Jackpot Method: Reinforcing Command Follow-Through

Dogs — By on May 27, 2011

Has the biscuit lost its lure? Has the canine reward system you implemented started to fail? If your dog seems to have lost all inspiration to respond to your commands, it may be time to reevaluate the rewards program you’ve implemented.

As you’ve probably discovered, giving your pup a cookie each time a request is fulfilled is not a sure-fire way to guarantee a desired response. Au contraire. Continuous reinforcement does work well when you are introducing your pooch to a new behavior. It marks the desired behavior.

But after a behavior is mastered, acting like a cookie dispenser each time your pup follows a command loses its efficacy. Your dog will start to weigh the draw of the biscuit versus chasing the cat, obliterating your sandals, biting the mailman, peeing on the couch, or inhaling your takeout dinner. Obviously the biscuit is doomed to (at least) occasional defeat.

The good news is that if you are willing to try a new trick, your pup can continue to warrant that obedience class certificate. The solution is intermittent reinforcement. After a behavior is mastered, intermittent reinforcement is the most effective way to ensure persistence (resistance to quitting).

Take some pointers from Las Vegas and allow your dog to hit the jackpot every now and then. This entails giving him or her an abundance of goodies or praise or a combination of both. Don’t just wait for the times your pup chooses to respond in lieu of pursuing the postman. Intermittently reward even a simple sit or fetch as if your canine prodigy just figured out the square root of 16 or recited the alphabet.

The best part about the jackpot method: losing your cookies is part of the plan for once. With this technique, you won’t always need to have treats with you in order to get a response. However, it’s important to remember that intermittent reinforcement does not always work in your favor. For the same reasons that the jackpot method works so well, occasionally giving in to begging is also the most effective way to train your pooch to be a table scrap mooch.

Speaking of food, during the training period (time of continuous reinforcement) give small rewards rather than large ones. Large biscuits, for example, will satiate your pup’s appetite and corresponding desire to please quickly. This will leave you without any pull. Of course with Labradors, concerns of satiation with anything less than an entire ham may be moot.

It’s important to remember that biscuits are not the only reward option. Some pups prefer a toss of the tennis ball, sharing of the favorite toy (or squeaking it), pets, praise, and even healthy treats like pieces of apples or carrots.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to continually evaluate your rewards program. If your dog is displaying signs of selective hearing, it’s not necessarily the hand you were dealt. Be a smart cookie and your pup will not just learn your commands but continue to respond at a later date. By using the jackpot method, you can continue to win big.

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