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Training Tuesday - Better Jackpot Rewards

For Training Tuesday, Steve Schwarz from Agility Nerd looks at jackpot rewards in training.


The term "jackpot" usually refers to giving a dog a really big reward, often a large number of treats, all at once. It is usually reserved for a break through moment or a desired behavior that the dog only occasionally performs. But I've learned that there should be more to it.

Most trainers focus on the timing of the reward marker and the delivery of the jackpot. The timing is definitely important. Whether you are using a clicker or a verbal to mark the behavior, you want the marker to occur immediately after the dog performs the desired action (which might be a step toward a final desired behavior). The delivery of the reward itself can be delayed.

I've heard Suzanne Clothier talk about using a "bridging" verbal while getting the reward itself. That is, you continue to use verbal praise to reward the dog while you both move to getting the actual reward (food/toy, etc). I believe she told a story where she bridged her dog all the way from the field and into the house to get a particularly valuable reward. The whole time she was verbally rewarding her dog, looking at her, telling her how clever she was, and really focusing her attention on her dog.

The verbal praise really needs to be heartfelt too. I think dogs can pick up on us faking it. So just like Suzanne, we need to invest our entire self into the communication we are having with our dog. This should not be a robotic, emotionless interaction.

I believe both Suzanne and Dana Pike stress that the actual delivery of the rewards in a jackpot should also be deliberate. Not just opening your hand and letting the dog eat a handful of treats. You get a lot more impact if you invest over one second of praise for each treat you deliver. Then deliver over a dozen treats. One by one. You want to spend 15-20 seconds giving the rewards.

If the behavior is really important to you, you want your dog to understand what a great thing they just did.

So an example of a jackpot would go as follows with the handler using a happy voice, smiling and looking (even beaming) at their dog throughout:

  • Good thing happens
  • Handler: "YES!" or click
  • Handler: "That was perfect!"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "You are so clever"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "I am so proud of you"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "That was such a good "
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "What a good dog"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "You did that perfectly"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "Wow, that was really something"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "You are such a smart pup"
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "What a good "
  • Handler delivers reward
  • Handler: "What a brilliant little fellow"
  • Handler delivers reward

I just timed that and to deliver 10 treats using the "script" above it took about 25 seconds.

Jackpots are supposed to be something really special to our dog. It is up to us to put in the effort to make them truly special.

Here's video of me using Jackpot rewards with Flyer as we work on my goal of improving our Dog Walk and Teeter performance:


This article was reprinted with kind permission from Steve Schwarz's AgilityNerd blog

Steve Schwarz has been training and competing in agility and flyball since 1997. He focuses on helping handlers improve their communication with their dogs on course in a positive and light hearted manner. Steve brings an analytical approach from his engineering background to the study and training of agility.

In order to stay knowledgeable about current agility training techniques, Steve trains regularly with top agility handlers and attends multiple dog and agility training seminars each year. Steve competes in AKC, USDAA, UKI, and CPE venues and has competed in NADAC and UKC.

Steve also writes the longest running dog agility blog: AgilityNerd (http://agilitynerd.com/) with regular articles and videos on agility training, handling, and course analysis.

Photo credit: Have you come to play on the beach too? via photopin (license)

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