I used to be skeptical about the value of jackpots (an extra large or extra high value surprise reward) in positive dog training, mainly because I didn't think that the dog would really know the difference between a couple pieces of kibble and a handful of kibble, or maybe that the dog would understand the difference in the value of the rewards, but wouldn't understand that it got a bigger reward for a reason. But they DO!! However, over the past few months I have come to be a believer in the value of jackpots for several different reasons.
Jackpots can help build a REALLY strong behavior. If a dog thinks it's possible that they will get an extra special reward for a particular behavior, they will be more enthusiastic about doing that behavior. When I started working with Lok on going to a mat, I wanted this to be a really strong behavior that he LOVED doing. I free shaped the initial behavior and the first time he got the completed behavior (walking to a mat and laying down on it) I jackpotted him. Then I jackpotted him frequently for the behavior after that. A down on a mat became a behavior that Lok was very enthusiastic about doing, and Lok being enthusiastic about anything in training is a pretty huge deal.
Jackpots can help overcome a dog's fear of or aversion to a behavior. Very difficult behaviors that a dog is hesistant to do can be accomplished through jackpots. Basically, you are making the value of the reward outweigh the negative associations with the behavior. Jackpots have helped me immensely in teaching Jun a back stall and a dog catch. I jackpot for both of these behaviors nearly every time. Not only did it help in overcoming Jun's fear of balancing on my back and her dislike of being caught, but it also produced a very strong behavior that she actually LOVES to do now.
In the past couple days I've discovered the coolest use yet for jackpots in free shaping. I wanted to shape Jun to stand on a small, overturned food bowl. The bottom is rubber, so she doesn't slip, but she has to balance with all four feet within a 5 inch diameter circle. Two front feet on the bowl was pretty easy, but three feet and four feet was more difficult.
Once she was offering me two feet on the bowl consistently, I stopped clicking her for that and waited for her to offer me the next step, which I had defined as three feet on the bowl. I didn't get it. I got her back feet closer to the bowl (c/t), I got two feet on the bowl with one back foot raised (c/t) but I couldn't get that consistently, and I got a bunch of other stuff I didn't want. And pretty soon she got totally confused and just started being silly and licking my face and even stopped offering the behavior of two feet on the bowl, since that wasn't getting clicked anymore.
So I took a step back, quickly re-shaped two feet on the bowl. Thinking about what to do next, not clicking every time, but clicking enough to keep the behavior going as well as clicking for back foot movement. But I still wasn't getting what I wanted. I was rewarding her for effort and for thinking, so I was getting continual variation, but still no consistency. Then suddenly she brushed the bowl with a back foot. CLICK/JACKPOT!!! Handful of kibble thrown on the ground, big party! THAT really got her attention and made her think about what she did that earned that huge reward. It wasn't long before she was consistently offering three feet on the bowl. Four was hard again, but I did the same thing. Continued to click and reward for three, but not clicking every time, so she was thinking and trying things, clicking and treating for getting close. Then once, accidentally, as a product of losing her balance, the other back foot came off the ground and moved toward the bowl. CLICK/JACKPOT again!!! And within a couple minutes I had all four feet on the bowl.
I don't think I would have gotten the same results had I just clicked and given a normal treat for the two instances where she accidentally gave me just what I wanted. Why? Jun understands shaping, she understands that when I stop clicking I want something else, but (a) despite valiant effort she might not guess correctly and then she doesn't get clicked at all, gets frustrated, and things fall apart, or (b) she is guessing correctly but not noticing it or there is enough natural variation in the behavior she's offering that she doesn't understand exactly what is being clicked and so I continue to get imprecise attempts that are not exactly what I'm looking for. The click and treat says she's doing it right, but I think she really understands the jackpot as "YES!! That was perfect and exactly what I wanted." Kinda cool!