Tennis Ball, Tug or Cookie? What do Rewards Have to do with Good Training?
by Robin MacFarlane
It is More than Just Pushing a Button, Part 3
We all like a pat on the back and the acknowledgement that we've done a good job, but how much better is it if there is a little something extra that goes along with that praise from time to time?
How many of you can remember back to elementary school when your teacher passed back graded papers, and you saw that red star up in the corner? That small token that accompanied the acknowledgement of getting it right meant more than just the grade alone.
The same goes for our dogs. Yes, they absolutely must learn to be able to respond properly to our commands without the need for bribes, but rewards used judiciously AFTER a correct response not only make the behaviors stronger, they make the dog's desire to work with you grow stronger as well.
Food or treats are typically the first thing people think of when we talk about rewarding our dogs. For many dogs, treats work wonderfully, particularly in the early stages of learning. I use a lot of treats when shaping behaviors in puppies and with new dogs that I'm first getting to know and encourage a relationship with. Gaining a dog's trust by working through his stomach comes quickly with a good many dogs. However, we have to remember that a reward is anything that the individual dog likes. And that is where some people get off course. What one dog will find rewarding, the next may be completely indifferent too. It is entirely individual, just like in people. I might be very motivated to know I could gain a box of dark chocolate candies, but my employee might prefer the option of leaving work an hour early.
So, don't limit your dog to only working for one thing. There are so many options beyond just food treats. Toys, the toss of a ball or bumper, a game of tug, a belly rub or even just the silliness of running around the yard are all valuable ways to build the training relationship you have with your dog. Learn what value your pooch places on different rewards, and then vary the use of them to match the situation and outcome you are trying to achieve.
It is important to also keep in mind where you are in the learning curve. Are you of teaching a new behavior or trying to strengthen and expand on something the dog already knows? Depending on where your dog is in the learning continuum makes a difference in how you distribute the goodies. If you are just starting to teach a behavior deliver the reward immediately (within 1 second or so) of the time the dog responds. As you progress, delay the gratification, so you build stamina and focus for your dog to continue working for longer amounts of time.
Keep the rewards hidden from your dog's view. We should not be dangling the carrot in front of the donkey in order to get him to walk. This is called a bribe, and the reliability of the training will fall apart quickly if you continue to use lures for more than a few repetitions in the early phase. As soon as the dog understands the basic mechanics of the behavior lures should disappear from the hand and go into a pocket or pouch until they are delivered to the dog for a correct response.
When I am out playing, working or just walking my dogs I typically have a few treats and a ball in one pocket and a tug toy tucked in the other. Because there is typically a 'surprise' reward at some point in our outings (for example, I might toss the ball or feed them a liver treat when they respond to my recall). My dogs have learned that staying attentive and responding quickly is worth the effort. Essentially you create a bit of a gambler mindset. The dogs keep playing the games because sometimes there is a decent pay out. They key in using the rewards is to remain unpredictable to the dog. The frequency is highly variable, which keeps them trying.
Ultimately, the best rewards to use are those that we can build intrinsic to the dog's nature. Herding breeds love being given the freedom to chase, Hounds the opportunity to sniff, Retrievers to retrieve, Terriers to dig, etc. It is highly rewarding to allow a dog the freedom to satisfy its natural instincts. Of course, that does bring me back to e-collars and learning to use them. Experiencing an entire life from the end of leash does not fulfill a dog's natural instincts. Freedom is likely the best reward you can give. Proper training with the e-collar can provide that freedom quickly and easily. Just remember that the leash, (See article: "What About the Leash?") rewards, and you (the discussion in our next segment) are all key parts of the training process!
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.