Effective Triggers and the Transfer of Value

Encore with a highly valued toy.

If you have been reading my blog for a little while, you are aware of my constant emphasis on relationship building and a solid foundation before you work on the “sexy” stuff in dog training. Although I am thrilled when I see people working at transferring the value of their dog’s rewards into things like a seesaw, contacts or weaves poles, for me there is often a critical step being left out.

To effectively use positive dog training I cannot stress enough the importance of the transfer of value for YOU! If a high-drive dog has loads of value for equipment but much less value for you, imagine how difficult handling your dog would be as he paid little attention to you while he darted from obstacle to obstacle? And what would happen if there weren’t any obstacles around? Your dog would then seek out reinforcement from distractions in his environment.

Building value for you is critically important for dogs at either end of the “drive” spectrum. If your dog is at the lower end of the arousal curve with little value for you when you do not have his treats, he may; slow down, leave you, start sniffing or even just shut down and stop working entirely once the primary “value” is not evident. Having a better transfer of the value for you means you become more important to your dog and he will pay better attention even during times when you are not carrying food or toys.

For those of you with the over-the-top-with-drive dogs; learning the fundamentals of this transfer of value will help you to see how you may be contributing to triggering your dog’s over-aroused state exactly at the moments you want him to be calm and focused.

If you are currently struggling with your dog training in some way, chances are the value of your rewards are still tied up in the “goodies” or “tugging” or “chance to chase” and there is nothing connecting you to those rewards. It is true, a person can never be more exciting to a field dog than a bird, or more important to a sheepdog than his sheep but you can build in triggers that tie the value of those things back through you which gives you amazing value to the dog!

See Your Dog as Sherlock Holmes

Dogs are brilliant detectives! One of many great assets dogs have is their ability to figure out patterns of reinforcement. That is why your dog can differentiate between the shoes you wear when you are preparing to take him for a walk and the shoes that mean “you aren’t coming this time.” I bet your dog knows and responds to the last thing that occurs before you push yourself away from the computer or when you pick up their leash or your car keys. The dog responds because those actions are triggering something very special. In effect your shoes, keys, computer shutting down all become positive triggers for the dog.

Competition = Sucks to Be The Dog!

Our dogs are equally clever at picking up triggers that signal no reinforcement will available at this time! There are dogs out there that are entering competitions without an adequate transfer of value for their owner, their work or the equipment. When these dogs perform at home or in training they are brilliant because you have their favourite cookie or tennis ball in your pocket and the dog knows it!  These dogs are not working with you because they love to run and jump or chase you as much as they are doing it for what they can get from you during the process! During the other times when you are not “packing the goods” (for example when you enter a competition), you get a different performance from the dog.

You can maybe fool some dogs for a short period of time, but eventually, they all will figure it out. If you haven’t been able to effectively transfer value to running with you and to playing the game, why would the dog want to go into the ring? This is when people will suggest to you that you try to fool the dog into thinking that you actually DO have his rewards on you (because clearly the game or you are not reinforcing enough to keep the dog’s attention away from other distractions that will present themselves at trials). You become one of those people that try to strategically hide cheese sticks around the outside of the ring or pass off a tennis ball behind your back to your friend just before stepping into the ring, hoping you can trick your dog.

I have, what may be some very upsetting news for you…

Eventually, the ring gates, the judge, the gate steward, the way you breathe or walk on competition day or all of the above, will become a trigger to your dog that no reinforcement will be available for the next 30-60 seconds while you are in that ring. The more technical the elements of what you are asking the dog to do, the more likely it is that you are going to lose your dog.

Maybe the dog hasn’t figured it out yet, but the day will be coming and when he realizes there is NO VALUE for him inside the ring. When that happens, whatever focus or drive for work you have right now will start to dwindle.

How will you know? It will start with the dog that walks or trots the course between obstacles 1-16 but runs like he has a rocket launcher up his butt from obstacles 16 through to 20 in order to EXIT the ring to get what he REALLY wants. The almighty cookie or tennis ball. Why? Because there was never any transfer of value in your training. Your dog will start to notice distractions that other competition dogs with a good transfer of value don’t seem to care about. Your dog is recognizing triggers that are bringing him stress, anxiety and a lack of what he really wants (his food or toys).

So how do you transfer the value of your dog’s reward? Positive triggers. You can cue anything from focus, to drive and even to relaxation. Below is a clip of my dogs with a few of the many triggers I routinely use while training and living with them.

Building positive triggers into your dog training is the first step in creating more value for you.  Remember though, it is always a balancing act, too much value for you makes it difficult to focus your agility dog towards obstacles, or your obedience dog towards work scent articles at a distance or your search and rescue dog to confidently work regardless if he can see you or not.

Please take your time to digest all that I wrote. If you are not yet a newsletter subscriber, you can sign up on the top right-hand side of this blog post. We share regularly on topics like this and want to make sure you don’t miss out. 

Today I am grateful for the gorgeous “winter” weather we are experiencing here today. High of 16 means outside jump grids for the dogs!

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