It feels like this should be an easy topic, no real training or thought needed, and on some level this is true. We all have a general idea how to dole out a reward. But it’s oh so easy to reward ineffectively! I think most of our issues stem from a failure to recognize (or remember) that rewards are ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to reoccur. So, a reward is something your dog actually likes and wants, offered in a manner that links it to a behavior so that your dog is likely to do behavior again—like when your dog almost pulls your shoulder out of it’s socket as he drags you to a bush, and then rewards himself by sniffing at it happily.
One way to reward ineffectively is to accidentally reward a behavior you don’t want!
Another way rewards can run off the tracks is when some of us confuse treats with rewards. Pet food marketers encourage this error after all, and it’s easy to feel you have rewarded your dog simply because you have shoved a treat at them—I think we are all guilty of this at times. But does your dog like the treat? Or maybe your dog is bored with a treat that was once super yummy—until 6 months passed by with absolutely no variation. You don’t have to hang out with dog trainers very long to hear someone indignantly say, “but he always liked these before”! Would you like potato chips if they were all you were ever allowed to snack on?
I might want to test this theory on myself, just to be sure! Potato chips are pretty darn good.
Maybe your treats are great, but your demeanor screams boredom or frustration or inattention when you offer your dog their treat. Another common thing that I see is a person leaning down over their space-sensitive dog as they offer the treat, counteracting the pleasure the dog might have felt over the treat. All these types of things can easily affect whether a tidbit is received as a reward by the dog.
Think how you feel when someone slaps food in front of you and then marches off. It’s not dinner. It’s an insult. Consider context when you’re evaluating your methods for rewarding your dog.
A related problem is the ease with which we forget that there is a whole world of rewards out there that we can draw upon. We are creatures of habit after all. But we needn’t limit ourselves to one brand (although my dogs do like Zuke’s®). Even hot dogs or cheese can get old, so although food is really helpful for precision, and treat placement, toys and games can be fun too and more motivating for some dogs or certain behaviors. Tugging (let your dog win) is a great reward for a recall or for holding two-on/two-off in agility. Frisbee or retrieving a ball can be highly motivating, and works-off calories from all the teats you’re using too.
Watch your dogs’ demeanor as you branch out. There are dogs who just don’t want you to toss the ball; they want to hold on to it. A squeaky toy that one dog loves may scare a sound-sensitive rescue.
So, now you’re convinced you should branch out, but don’t stop at toys. Why not look for other opportunities to reward good behavior. Let your dog out to play after a nice “sit” or “down.” Tell your dog to “go sniff” to reward his decision to not tug you all the way to the well-marked mailbox. Also, what things in the environment are rewarding behaviors you don’t like? You may need to cut off access to this environment-based reward if you want the annoying behavior to slowly extinguish itself.
Quantity can also be important, along with delivery (e.g., one treat after another to draw out the fun, or a quick jackpot or a 5 minute game of tug for a great job). A puritanical insistence on avoiding handouts (the nothing-in-life-is-free plan) can also undermine certain types of training, such as classical conditioning, as can the ever-popular fear of over-treating. Outside of calories (and cost), I’m not sure why this is of such concern for so many people. But over and over, I see people reward their young dog for finding a source after a long, hard search with, drum roll, a single, teeny, tiny treat—even after they were encouraged to go wild—and then they wonder why their dog is distracted by all the good scents occurring naturally in the environment. Hint—they are more interesting than the reward that you’ve conditioned your dog to associate with the scent.
I’m not suggesting that we treat anything and everything, but we forget at our peril that a better-than-all-previous-efforts effort deserves a bigger-than-most payout even if the behavior still needs work. Any effort may warrant a jackpot if it was in the presence of an overwhelming distraction, or took an exceptionally long time to complete. I cannot emphasize enough how an occasional piece (or 5) of steak, or a meatball, or a long tug session in exchange for a better-than-most effort may be all that is needed to help motivate a dog accustomed to working in a sea of teeny, tiny kibble.
So ask your dog to learn a lot and work hard, but remember that nothing in life is free. Pay up!
*Next time we’ll talk about rewards, I’ll explore how searching can function as a reward.