This is the reason we reward our dogs with treats

Reward treats accompany our guide dogs lifelong. Puppy raisers, trainers and owners reward Labradors gladly and the dogs admire them. Although the quantity decreases year by year, that has its explanation though. We introduce you in a series of articles on how we care about the wellbeing of the puppy pupils in the Baráthegyi Guide Dog School . The series have been created on the International Guide Dog Day.

Reward Treats are used for confirmation, additionally they support the communication and when we build relation, they accelerate the process. This is applicable for the period of puppy raising (as of 2nd month till 1,5 years) than for the upcoming period of the training (4-6 months) and all along they are with their visually impaired owner.

Four Guide Trainees are expecting their reward treats

Nevertheless, let us take it one-step at a time 

When the guide dog trainee learns a new task with its trainer, the reward treat helps them to understand what they are expected to do. When they understand it, we reward them less but we do not remove this completely from the system. That means reward treats are always there but dogs do not receive any for all pieces of task, but more rarely. We prefer more and more the social reward. The process is not that complicated, we explain through examples what it is about.

Finding curbs

One of the important to-dos of a guide dog is to indicate curb appeals to their owners with low vision so that they don’t fall over. In this case, dogs step on the curb and halt and the owner learns immediately that they got to a barrier and praises the partner instantly. At the beginning of the learning journey, dogs are eligible for the reward treats in case of every signal; this helps the dog to understand that it is worth it to halt. This is useful for the sake of fast learning. However, if they were doing this always in exchange for the treats, they would get into the bad habit of running from anywhere, halt on the curb and be extremely happy and they would expect the reward treats. Nevertheless, they could not understand the bottom line.

In order to avoid this we ensure during the training that the dogs understand: they do well if they stop, their trainer will be satisfied, praise them with words and patting. They use social rewards, which become increasingly important. This is the way they arrive to the point where the trainer makes a mock test with the trainee on the appropriate level – that means he will be guided with covered eyes in the real traffic-, the dog will not halt expecting treats at the curb but because it wants to help the trainer. At this time, the dog is already experienced and knows if it missed the signal that would be painful for the trainer, he would slip up. Their cooperation is that close by this time that the dog feels and understands that they should be together for better and worse. “Good for the trainer, good for me too, bad for him, bad for me too.” It is amazing that the guide dog takes this knowledge away when it gets to its owner.

Eva rewards Unka. The visually impaired owner was preparing for the test when we made the interview

Indicating door-handles

Our next example is the signalization of the door-handles, when the dog puts its nose on the door-handle. We train this mechanical motion with reward treats too. The exercise makes sense when it goes with the trainer, who only opens the door when the dog signals the door-handle. Similar to the signal of the curb, reward treats are necessary only until the dog learns it is good to put his nose on the handle. When the movement sequence makes sense to him, we have already introduced a combination of social reward and traits.

Our dogs are for it too

What if the quantity and frequency of reward treats would not decrease? In that case, the guide dog would consider its owner as a “food machine” what is to be avoided. So that they do not only get reward but change to social praise they understand much easier that the owner has needs, that means there are things which make the owner happy and there are ones that make him sad. All in all the reward treats are very useful to understand the procedure of learning, to accelerate it and to build relationships, so that our dogs can help the best way.

We did not have to ask our dogs if they loved it yet…..

Astonia chews happily the small bar done by its Trainer

We made a video about how Éva and Unka are preparing for their traffic test.

You can read the first article about the wellbeing of the guide dogs here.