Rewarding in Dog Training
Updated: Jan 17
When training a dog a new behaviour, trick, or task, some form of reward is going to help you and make it easier for your dog to grasp what is required at that given time, and ultimately when it is paired with a certain command - be that a verbal command, a whistle command, or a visual command.
A reward can come in many forms and how beneficial they are will depend a lot on your dogs
personality, and possibly a little bit on it’s training history too.
When most people think of giving a ‘reward’ they assume you mean food and food can be very
stimulating for many dogs. On the flip side, for some dogs, food isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the rabbit in the hedge or the dog on the other side of the park and so isn’t an overly productive reward to use.
Personally, I like to use verbal praise and touch praise for the dogs I work with. I believe it’s a very clear way of communicating with a dog and provided you are aware of any body language signals that the dog is giving, you can adapt your praise accordingly - for example; some dogs might enjoy an over the top ‘party’ when they’ve successfully completed a task, whereas another might just appreciate a gentle tickle under the chin.
Both verbal praise and touch praise are also readily available wherever you are and cannot be
forgotten, or ran out of..
Many working bred dogs live for any and all opportunities to hunt and/or retrieve: these can also be used as a reward for the dog completing a task correctly. A good example would be hunting up some long grass or a hedgerow after a nice spell of heelwork, or some fun unsteady retrieving after an extended sit/stay.
In recent years a verbal reward marker has become more common place, and in some respects,
is used where a clicker would have been. In the early stages of training your dog to understand a verbal reward marker, the word you’ve chosen (frequently “yes”) is paired with a food reward.
Over time the food is phased out and the word remains; the dog has come to understand that
when he hears the word “yes” he has done the right thing.
The timing of a reward needs to be pretty precise - incorrect timing of a reward can lead to an
unwanted behaviour being the one that is repeated. If we look at heelwork for a moment, perhaps you have given your dog a verbal “good boy” because he has stopped pulling like a steam train - you’ve given the praise because the pulling has stopped and we want that to continue. But, if you look closely at the bigger picture, was he positioned in the correct place next to your leg and/or did he still have his nose on the floor?
Obviously it all comes down to personal preference, and my preference is that my dog is at my
left heel, with his nose fairly level with my knee, and his head raised off the floor.
If I say “good boy” to my dog who is no longer dragging me along the road, but who’s hips are
next to my knee, and he is sniffing the grass, I am essentially telling him that he is doing the right thing so when I try to correct his body position and his head ‘carriage’ later on I am giving mixed and confusing messages..
If I’m teaching my puppy to sit and am using a food reward, I need to make sure I give my food
reward at the point where my puppy is actually sitting on the floor (and in the early early stages, literally just at the point of ‘touchdown’). If I withhold the treat, or am not quick enough to give it, there’s a high percentage chance that my puppy will actually have got back up before he gets the treat - at this point am I treating the ‘sit’? Or am I treating the ‘get back up’? Am I training my puppy that ‘sit’ means “put my bottom on the floor, and then get back up again to receive my treat”?
Is it a lure or a bribe? When we first start teaching a new behaviour or skill, we often use the reward as a lure; we can take an item (such as a favourite toy or a piece of kibble) and use that lure to guide the dog through the behaviour we are looking to train - some examples would be sit, lie down, heel, stand, bed. Once the dog knows the command and its expected response we need to phase out the use of the lure and replace it with a verbal marker and/or verbal/touch praise. We can offer a sporadic food or toy rewards to keep the anticipation high; he will keep trying in the hope of receiving his toy or food, but we need to pay close attention to whether our 'lure' has become a 'bribe'. Is your dog responding in the expected manner because he understands that is what is expected? Or because we've shown him we have 'sweeties' before we gave him the command? Will he respond when he knows there is food, or a retrieve on offer, but not if he believes there isn't?
As with all training, from teaching a new behaviour, to progression of an already learnt one,
consistency is the key.
Consistency in how you train it, Consistency in how you repeat and reinforce it, and Consistency in how you reward it.
Happy training folks!
Around the circle
I am part of a fabulous blog circle with other dog trainers. Each blog in the circle links to the next so you can read what each of them has to say about using rewards in training.
Next up in the circle is Nicci Kenny from Whistle and Wag dog training in Suffolk. She talks about what our dogs find rewarding and how to reward correctly. Have a read of Nicci’s blog here: http://whistleandwag.dog/how-to-correctly-reward-my-dog