What's the Name of the Game?

Why it makes sense to tell your dog what his reward is going to be by using an info-cue.

In Cooperative Hunting you don’t want to interrupt or stop your dog’s hunting behaviour. But how do you achieve that your dog stops and controls himself more often and longer at the triggering stimulus instead of rushing after the game? By naming rewards and announcing them to your dog, you can functionally enhance your dog’s NOT-hunting with hunting.

What reward follows after you have clicked or given your marker? In almost all cases, the dog is rewarded with food. Food is great as a reinforcer, because it is easy for us to carry and most dogs love to eat.

However, it can lead to problems if your dog is only rewarded with food. If your dog has learned that the marker signal is always followed by a treat, he will make a choice: Is a cookie really what I want at the moment?

Imagine your dog is about to chase a rabbit. You give your marker signal for him still standing and watching the rabbit and now your dog weighs: Should I really call off the hunt and get my dry cookie, or isn’t it much more fun to chase after the rabbit?

Link the marker signal to numerous primary reinforcers

In order to avoid this predictability, it is important that you link the marker signal not only to food, but also to many different primary reinforcers.

A primary reinforcer is everything that makes your dog happy and what he would like to have in this moment: food, play, digging, sniffing, social contact, swimming, off-leash time, etc.

Examples for primary reinforcers could be:

  • Recall your dog, mark and send him for a swim as a reward,
  • Let your dog do a nose touch and send him to his dog buddy as a reward.
  • Ask your dog to keep a loose leash and then as a reward remove the leash.

Give your reward a name!

From all these environmental reinforcers you can now choose some that your dog will love. These super rewards now get a name.

One of Nanook’s favorite rewards is “bowling”. If I give Nanook the info cue “Bowling”, then he knows that I will roll a treat over the floor and that he can rush, grab, and eat this treat.

With the bowling reward, numerous sequences from hunting behaviour are covered, that meet the dog’s intrinsic needs.

The Protocol for Info Cues

Like any cue, the info cue is first built up in a low-distraction environment. It is important that the info cue is given first. So I say loud and clear “bowling”. Only then do I reach into my treat bag, take out the treat and roll it over the floor.

Info cue “Bowling!” -> wait 1 second -> reach into the bag -> roll treat
As with every classical conditioning, you connect emotions and expectations in the dog with the cue. If he hears the word in the future, this word alone triggers the emotions in him that are connected with the acutal reward (chasing).

Once the dog has learned what the word means, you can use it outside as a reward for desired behavior.

The Info Cue as a reinforcer

Your dog sees a rabbit. Instead of giving your marker signal, you now say the info cue “Bowling!“ Your dog now knows what reward awaits him and ideally knows where that reward awaits him (behind him and away from the stimulus). He knows: “Ah, ok, if I now turn away from the rabbit, then I may still chase cookies back there with my human.” Now it will be much easier for him to turn away from the rabbit and return to you.

What is your dog able to do at this particular moment?

Reward info cues are an offer to your dog. They tell him for example: I’m going to roll a cookie back here. If you want and if you can, come join me and chase the cookie.

If your dog is not able to take advantage of this offer, then it was probably not the right reward at that moment. Try out a little: What is your dog able to do right now? What does he really want in this particular situation?

Reinforcers have to be functional

Reward info cues should be as functional as possible. This means that they should come as close as possible to the behaviour your dog actually wants to show. If your dog likes to chase, bowling is an excellent substitute.

If your dog would like to dismantle prey, you can wrap up his reward in a paper bag, which you throw in the opposite direction after the info cue “Shredding”, so that he can grab, dismantle and eat it.

If your dog likes to watch game with his eyes, reward him with the stalking game.

Static and dynamic reward Info Cues

To reward your dog according to his needs, you should name both calm and dynamic reward info cues.

Nanook’s static reward info cues are:

  • “Cookie” – a treat is delivered directly to his mouth
  • “Stalk” – I play the stalking game with him
  • “watch movie” – Nanook is allowed to follow the game with his eyes, four feet on the floor

Nanook’s dynamic reward info cues are:

  • “Catch” – I throw a treat that he can catch in the air
  • “Bowling” – I toss a treat across the floor for him to chase
  • “Go sniff” – treats are tossed on the floor or I show him an interesting place to sniff
  • “Dig” – I show him a mouse hole or sand pitch
  • “Shred it” – I throw him a paper bag or toilet roll with treats inside

Managing your dog’s level of excitement

With the help of static and dynamic reward info cues you can influence your dog’s level of excitement.

If your dog is watching a rabbit and is not able to turn around to you when you offer him to bowl because he is simply too excited, first give him some biscuits directly into his mouth with the info cue “cookie”. If he can accept them, you already have one foot in the door. Now try again to ask him to bowl.

You can actively relax your dog after a wild chasing game with the help of a static reward info cue and avoid frustration. After the dynamic chase you announce the calmer “sniffing” and sprinkle some treats on the ground. Finally, announce „Cookie“ and give him a treat directly into his mouth.