The art of rewarding with a rabbit enclosure

Do you sometimes feel that your rewards fall way short compared to that fun distraction that your dog would much rather interact with? I think that one of the great things about clicker training is that we can use the environment as the reward when suitable. Last winter I got the chance to reward with a rabbit enclosure. It was very interesting to see how that worked! ?

On my trip to Finland, I spent some time both outside of and inside my friend Anna’s nice rabbit enclosure. The third time we were by the rabbit enclosure, there was a lot more fresh scent than during our previous visit. The rabbits had been out and about and had eaten carrots. We didn’t enter the enclosure, but stayed outside, working on recalls and casting in pretty deep snow.

This time, the distraction of all the scents was very difficult for Qulan. Even little miss Perfect, aka Tassla, turned her nose a few times. ? I threw a mark and sent Quling to retrieve. He ran three meters – up to the enclosure – and sat down with his nose pointing towards it. He also seemed to appraise the height of the fence, if he could jump it or not. ? But not even a very spry Quling would make it, which he seemed to realize.

I went to pick him up, walked a few meters closer and sent him on a short memory retrieve. He could do it under those conditions. When he delivered the dummy, I rewarded with “ok” and he ran straight to the fence and trying to pick up scent after the rabbits. After a while I went to pick him up again and did the same thing again with the exact same result and the same reward. The third time he could skip running to the fence before retrieving and I once again rewarded him by giving him the opportunity to go sniff. The fourth time, he himself quit the sniffing after a few seconds and came back to me, ready to work. The following repetitions looked the same.

I love it when it happens! A less likely behavior (run straight in and out again) is rewarded with a more likely behavior (running to sniff by the enclosure), making the lower-valued behavior suddenly more valuable. Sometimes even more valued than the reward. In behavioral science this is referred to as Premack’s principle and if you want to read more about it there is plenty of material out there.

A day or two after this training, the value of the rabbit enclosure had decreased a little (if you’re allowed to go look and sniff, it’s not as fun as when it’s completely forbidden). We then moved inside the enclosure and had a really good training session, even if Quling found it tricky and had to go check on a small pile of twigs before retrieving the dummy. ? Him stopping just after I’ve sent him is due to me breathing too heavily into the whistle, making noise that he interprets as a stop. ?

2 thoughts on “The art of rewarding with a rabbit enclosure”

  1. Michael Brooks

    Hi Lena, I’m interested that you raised the Premack Principle. Some dog trainers claim that such training means the dog will end up really like performing the low probability behaviour. I’m not so sure. If someone promised me that I would receive ice cream (high probability event) if I ate say all my liver (low probability event), then I don’t think I would ever change my preference towards liver. Does the Premack Principle apply to dogs in a way that it does not necessarily to humans?

  2. Interesting thoughts Michael! I often use Premack and think it works great, but maybe we humans are more complex than dogs when it comes to this? I don’t think I would love lever more if I had ice cream after either, haha. But maybe the difference is that we really dislike lever and feel sick thinking of it? 😉 And retrieving is quite fun from the beginning – but not as fun as looking at rabbits? I don’t have the answer, but it is interesting to think about. 🙂

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