Positive Reinforcement - Rewards!

This blog is about the importance of rewards in dog training. The poster above gives some top tips, but I'll explain them in more detail here.

1) Rewards can be a variety of things. You do not need to give your dog a piece of food every time. You may want to change occasionally or use different rewards for different training. For example, you may use food for sit and a tuggy toy for agility.

2) Work out what your dogs favourite reward is - and then use that for training. If your dog isn't that interested in food, but loves his tennis ball, then of course your chosen reward should be the tennis ball! Spend time using different types of reward and find which one your dog will work hardest for.

3) ANY good behaviour you see, particularly with puppies, reward. When you begin teaching your dog something new, they aren't going to understand that they've done the right thing unless there is a reward for it. For example, you're in a field and there's another dog in the distance. Your dog looks at the other dog but chooses to sniff the grass near you instead of running off to greet the other dog. Without rewarding your dog, next time they might choose that going to greet the other dog is a more 'self-rewarding' behaviour.

4) Rewards can be given at any time - but save the best for more challenging training. For example, you ask your dog to sit (an already known behaviour), you can reward your dog for doing what was asked. But if their favourite reward is fresh chicken, don't give that to them as their reward, use a normal treat or piece of kibble. Save that amazing motivating chicken for the new tricks your dog is learning, where they're challenging their brains to learn now things.

5) Have a special word to 'mark' the good behaviour. An example of this would be you're teaching your puppy to sit, the second his bottom touches the floor, say 'yep' in a happy high-pitched tone. This is marking, where you are using the word to signal to your dog they've done the right thing and a reward is about to appear.

6) Use a clicker for training when you can. Clickers are little devices that make a 'click' noise. This is used as a marker, just like in number 5 above, the 'yep' word is used. Clickers are generally a better option as they are a consistent sound and hopefully are easier to click the second the right behaviour occurs.

7) Make sure you reward instantly as the good behaviour occurs. If you are too late catching the behaviour using your marker or reward, then you are going to be rewarding a different behaviour. For example, you've asked your dog to stop and they do. Unfortunately your treat got stuck in your treat pouch, so by the time you get it out, your dog has started to sniff the nearest tree and then you give them the treat. What you've really done is rewarded them for sniffing the tree and not standing still. Using a marker word or clicker reduces the chances of this happening.

8) Don't leave rewards available at all times e.g. only get the toy out when training. Rewards lose their value if they are constantly accessible. If your dogs favourite reward is their squeaky plush toy and all day it is lying around the house, it will not remain exciting and motivating in a training session. However, if your dog only gets it after walking loosely on lead for example, they're much more likely to repeat that loose lead walking in future because the reward of getting to play with the toy was great fun!

9) Use different rewards depending on the activity levels and environment - playing with a toy may make your dog too excited to learn calm behaviours. Imagine your dog is struggling to stay in a down when other dogs are around, as they would love to go make friends with the other dogs. When they manage to stay in a down for long enough to gain a reward, you get out a long tug toy so that he jumps up and excited plays with you. When it comes to returning to that down your dog will struggle more because they are hyped up and there are enticing dogs around.

10) Start by rewarding every time - you can reduce the rewards later. To teach a dog something new, you must be clear when they are doing it! If you do not reward every time, they are likely trying to work out why it does not work every time and try different behaviours. They may also not be very motivated to perform the behaviour if they are not expecting a reward. Once your dog is confident in performing the behaviour and you can guarantee they know the cue for it, you can begin by occasionally skipping a reward, then alternating how often they get it, e.g. every other time and then every third time, and even later reducing the value of the reward e.g. from a food item to verbal praise.

Hopefully this gives you a few tips to ensure you're rewarding in the right way!

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