Dog training as gaming
Several different recent online alerts pointed me to this video from game theorist Tom Chatfield. Take a few minutes to watch his presentation and then let’s talk about how dog training is like gaming.
Modern computer games offer a stunningly wide range of carefully designed rewards. They also provide us with some really fascinating, and incredibly strong, tools to measure exactly what kinds of things people find rewarding.
Games keep us engaged largely through masterfully designed schedules of variable reinforcement. And game designers don’t just vary the timing of rewards, the value of the rewards varies greatly and smart game designers also offer different kinds of rewards including abstract things like karma and experience.
To keep our attention, a game can’t just offer rewards, it also has to offer some aspect of risk. We only stay fully engaged in a game when there is a real risk that losses (or aversives) will occur along with rewards.
Based on his work, Chatfield has come up with seven different ways that well-designed games reward our brains. His list bears a striking resemblance to the ways that I think a well-designed training program rewards our dogs’ brains.
- Complex games give us a way to measure our progress. When we play a game we want to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That we’re accomplishing something. And a good game gives us a way (or better yet, several ways) to measure that. This innate need to feel that one is making progress is one of the reasons why it’s important to break a training exercise down into discrete steps and give your dog meaningful input at each one of those steps rather than just at the end of a task.
- A game provides players with an array of different long- and short-term goals. Making progress on smaller goals helps maintain our motivation as we work to achieving the big ones. Small successes help prevent burn-out and frustration. This is something that people commonly lose track of when they work with dogs. Humans appear to be unique in our obsession with forward thinking and planning ahead. In advanced training as well as in day-to-day life, there are times when we’re focused on a complex and/or distant end goal that our dogs simply aren’t capable of seeing. This can be a source of much interspecies miscommunication – and frustration. And it’s another reason why it’s important to break training work up into a series of discrete steps that make sense to your dog.
- A well-designed game rewards effort along with skill. This is another place where we commonly create confusion in our dogs. There’s a big difference between making a sincere effort that puts you into the wrong place and deliberate defiance or misbehavior. As I commonly remind my clients, being wrong is not the same as being bad - and the two absolutely should not be dealt with in the same kinds of ways.
- A game needs to provide players with timely, frequent and clear feedback. Do I need to clarify how this ties into dog training? I hope not. (Although this idea does tie in nicely with my recent post on goals, learning and the emotional regulation of behavior).
- It is vitally important that a game includes some element of surprise to bring excitement into play. Many trainers focus on the importance of surprise in using jackpot rewards to maintain a dog’s interest. While jackpots can be valuable, we also need to incorporate suprise in a less obvious way- through the use of contrast. Contrast allows us to give the dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out. Contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference in a given situation. It can also help show a dog which features he needs to focus on and which he can safely ignore. This is vitally important in most complex problem solving exercises.
- A game provides players with windows of enhanced attention. This state of enhanced attention or being completely involved in an activity simply for its own sake is sometimes referred to as flow. When you’re in the flow state you engage all of your physical and emotional resources to act and learn. Flow is important in play because it’s a very strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind. I believe that humans and other animals have a natural play drive because the flow in play is intrinsically rewarding. A good training exercise should provide you and your dog with these ’windows of enhanced attention’ - and leave you both wanting more.
- Games are interactive. Team-mates and opponents play a vital part in games. Dogs and humans are social creatures and competition and collaboration are often more rewarding to us than cash or treats. I see this in Audie who works mostly just for the reward of interacting with me. I rarely use treats or toys when I work with him because praise, petting and the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with me are what the boy lives for. Though he also seems to love the competitive rush he gets from chasing (and sometimes catching) squirrels and other prey.
I thought it was interesting that while Chatfield brought up the importance of risk and loss in creating a good game he left that idea off the list. We seem to be developing such a strong (and in many cases, irrational) distaste for fear, stress and other kinds of aversives in today’s world that many people seem not to be capable of seeing the important and necessary part they play in our lives. Without yin there is no yang. If we could erase all aversives from life - joy would disappear too.
A really great game is addictive (though not always in a good way). Really great dog training should be addictive too, so if you and your dog haven’t become addicted to the work you’re doing, take a few tips from game theorists and get lost in the flow.