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Training Tip Tuesday: The Power of Novelty

Who here has heard or said the phrase "I'm full of this!" following a meal time? I've heard this phrase after someone claims that they're full and done with dinner, and then 5 minutes later proceed to ask when dessert is. When you ask them why they said they were full, they exclaim "I'm full of this!", pointing to their still-half-full dinner plate (kids are especially guilty of this!). The fact of the matter is that usually they're not actually full, they're just bored and ready for something new (like cake!).

Did you know that your puppies and dogs can also be "full of this"? A perfect example is what happened last night in my puppy class. It was about 40 minutes into the class, and the puppies (and humans!) were losing their focus. I noticed one of my students really struggling, attempting to use a food lure for a behavior and the puppy was completely uninterested. I went over to offer my help, and the owner told me that he was pretty sure his puppy was bored and "over" the class. I got a piece of high value treat out of my bait bag, and offered it to the puppy. Suddenly all eyes were on me, and the puppy was happily offering sits and downs. The owner was pretty surprised, but when I asked him what kind of treats he had he showed me three of the same type of training treat (three flavors of Zukes, to be specific). On the other hand, I had given the puppy a treat that was completely different in texture, smell, flavor, and look, and she started happily working again.

Now in that particular instance, the value of the treat I offered was significantly higher value than the zukes. That definitely played a role. However, you can use this with treats that the dog values equally as long as they are different in some way. The important thing is that the treat is significantly different from what the dog was getting before (and that the dog likes it, of course!)

So how can you harness the power of novelty in your training? There are a few things you can do:

1) Mix it up!

Don't just have one or two types of treat in your treat pouch, have a wide variety mixed together. This way your dog will always be guessing about what's going to be next, and working for the treat regardless of what it is in the hopes that the next one will be high value! (This is my thought process when eating Runts candy. I'm always hoping the next one will be banana!)

2) Save the best for last

If you're planning an extended training session or going to class, have one new treat as "back up" for the end of the session so that you can keep your dog interested the entire time. When your dog starts to lose focus, bring out the novel treat for the last part of the class or session to keep your dog engaged.

3) Reward the REALLY good responses with new treats!

If you're working on a behavior with your dog and starting to fine tune it, you can use a novel reward to reinforce only the best responses. An example of this is coming when called. You may start by using the usual cookies, and decide to start training specifically for fast, whip-lash head turn responses. When your dog comes to you, you reinforce him regardless of the speed, but when he comes lightening quick you break out the new, more exciting treat. This contrast between reinforcers can really drive home the point to your dog that it is worth it for him to bust his butt to come when called as quickly as possible.

The fact of the matter is that if you're always using the same treats, eventually your dog will get sick of them* (this rule may not apply to labradors). My favorite food in the world is the Chicago Diner's Vegan Reuben sandwich, but I'm sure if I ate it for every meal of every day eventually I wouldn't want it any more. Your dog is the same way. They are a living sentient creature, and even super food motivated dogs can become "full of this". So keep your dog guessing about what's coming next, and have something novel stashed for later! Happy training!


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