Ask a dog trainer to tell you one of their biggest pet peeves about their training clients, and they will almost always mention the fact that the average dog owner almost seems to actively resist the concept of “high-value rewards.”
I’ve sat in on a lot of different trainers’ classes, and during the first session, all trainers make an effort to describe the treats they want to see their clients bring to puppy kindergarten and beginning dog training classes: extra-special treats, such as fresh meats and tiny cubes of fragrant cheeses. Extra-high-value treats are needed, it is explained, because the group-class environment is so exciting and distracting to the dogs and puppies who are new to this, that the owners will need reinforcers of the highest value to the dogs, to capture and hold their attention in a highly distracting environment. (A training center can also be very stressful for shy, undersocialized, or fearful dogs.)
I’ve heard trainers go on and on, for 10 minutes at a time, about the need for really succulent foods to be used as treats (not just dried treats or kibble, no matter how food-motivated the pup or dog is at home), not feeding the dogs before class (so the pup won’t be full of food already and unable to physically eat much more), cutting the treats into tiny bits (so many of them can be fed in a class), including a variety (not just one type, so the dog doesn’t get bored), and bringing more than the owner thinks she might possibly need, because you will be using many, many tiny treats in a 50-minute beginning dog-training class.
Trainers make such a fuss over the value and type and variety and amount of treats because, again and again, owners arrive to class and are shocked—SHOCKED!—to discover that:
Their dogs are too distracted or stressed to take any but the most over-the-top delicious treats in the class setting.
Their dogs completely disregard the owners’ pouches full of cut-up hot dogs and, instead, go bananas for the trainer’s samples of stinky cheese, tuna bits, roast beef, and freeze-dried liver.
By the end of the class, when the trainer is saying, “Yes! That was great! Mark and reward that behavior!” and the owners often reply, “But I’m out of treats!”
To defend their choices, almost all owners will say, “But he works for kibble at home! I thought hot dogs would be ‘high-value’ enough! And I cut that hot dog into 20 pieces!”
(For what it’s worth, when I use hot dogs as training treats, I cut each one into about 64 pieces: Slice them lengthwise, roll it over halfway and slice it lengthwise again, so you have four long, skinny pieces. Then, holding it together, slice it across, about 16 times, so you end up with 64 or so tiny treats.)
By the end of a six-week class, though, any trainer worth her salt should be able to peek in every student’s bait bag and see a wide variety of scrumptious meats and cheeses and treats, all cut into tiny bits. Success!!