Relative Deprivation

Relative Deprivation

Relative deprivation refers to the idea that rewards always exist within a context of available alternatives. For example, the value of a hot dog cannot be considered unless we know what the alternative options are, such as a piece of kibble or a pound of ground beef. For dog trainers, the important consideration is whether we are overpaying, underpaying, or correctly paying our performance dogs. Motivators should be sufficient to develop the desired behavior without being excessive (and therefore difficult to reduce at a later time.) This is the definition given by Denise Fenzi and Deborah Jones in their book, Dog Sports Skills, Book 2 Motivation. (p. 151)

Relative deprivation was (and still is to a great extent) a new concept to me. Fenzi says (p. 29) that trainers who struggle the most to get past the initial learning phases and to finished, ring-ready behaviors are the ones who have over-motivated their dogs, often with little or no thought to developing alternative motivators.  Food is used to mark every positive interaction while developing a warm and intrinsically valuable relationship unintentionally falls by the wayside.

Dogs highly susceptible to relative deprivation find it difficult for them to accept alternative (lesser) motivators within a training session. This happened to me. My dog likes food! He likes to be rewarded. He will offer behaviors just because there might be a good treat coming for such offerings. Is my dog prone to relative deprivation? No, he is not that type of dog. I have TAUGHT that type of behavior. I have taught it so well, that high-value training treats have added more than 5 pounds to my dog!

In fact, I have taught the reward of a high value treat so well, that he wonders off when he knows I do not have any treats on me.  I have been working hard to have a nice off-leash heeling pattern, so have been popping a lot of treats in his mouth. When I am ready to practice a real show experience where I cannot offer any treats the entire time we are in the ring, I lose my dog! He wonders off and creates his own patterns.

In many ways we are so much alike, what’s in it for me? Is it a high enough value to do something when there appear to be better options? I also see this in kids, especially teens. Yes, they intend to take out the garbage, but the Play Station Game right now is so much more rewarding and gets the attention.

Unless you and I are conscious about what we are doing, it is unlikely we will consciously and systematically reduce the schedule of reinforcement. There are many things we need to do: vary high value treats with low value treats, lengthen time between treats, string together behaviors before any treats are offered, and sometimes reward with pats instead of treats or toys.

My dog and I have started playing hide and seek. The reward is just attention from me. I will let you know how it works.

What do you do to wean off treats or toys for 7-10 minutes of performance time while you are training. I would love to hear your recommendations.

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