Dogs are natural problem solvers and we see it in them everyday when they do something pleasantly unexpected or when we’re left scratching our heads to figure out where they got that from. Again.
If we don’t figure out new and engaging ways to keep them cognitively challenged we risk them doing it on their own in ways that won’t be acceptable.
This is why I love puzzle toys so much, keep a closet full of them at home, and why my dogs’ eyes light up every time they see the Yuppy Puppy Treat Machine come out.
In essence, the Treat Machine is half gumball machine and half slot machine but what it really is is a window into the sheer power of the positive reinforcement variable reward schedule.
It takes a couple demonstrations on the owner’s part to get the dog to understand how it works – pull the bone-shaped handle down to dispense some treats – but once it clicks in their minds they’re hooked.
In theory, the Treat Machine dispenses with each successful pull of the bone-shaped arm but the beauty of the puzzle is that most dogs just aren’t all that coordinated with their paws to be able to pull the arm with each try so they introduce the necessary variability into the reward schedule to get them coming back again and again.
The variable reward schedule that the Treat Machine takes advantage of is the secret sauce of positive reinforcement training and it’s just as strong in humans as it is in any other animal – if not more so.
By providing a reward of sufficient value in terms of monetary value, physical gratification, or sheer yumminess at a frequent enough schedule to ensure a relatively good chance of receiving it with each attempt, the variable reward schedule can essentially coax the mind into repeating behaviors that will hopefully lead to the reward payoff.
While in positive reinforcement dog training we leverage the variable reward schedule for the benevolent purposes of teaching and shaping fun or pleasing behaviors, the sheer power of it that I mentioned earlier is also what leads in humans to gambling and drug addiction, risk-taking behaviors, and why people stay in unsafe relationships.
Coming back to more pleasant territory, the Yuppy Puppy Treat Machine fulfills my criteria for a great positive reinforcement puzzle toy:
- It’s relatively inexpensive.
- It does exactly what they say it will do and will consistently keep your dog challenged.
- It’s not something they’ll ever grow bored of provided the rewards dispensed remain interesting to them.
I use the Treat Machine at home with my own dogs and I use it in class frequently. I think it’s a great tool to add to our positive reinforcement bag of tricks and believe you will, too.