You would think it would be glaringly obvious and that no one would need to consider the fact that rewards in dog training should in fact be rewarding. However “non-rewarding” rewards are a trend I see more and more frequently as a professional dog trainer and instructor. Rewards to your dog are a system of currency for services rendered. How much work would your contractor, plumber, landscaper, or any other paid professional put in if you didn’t pay them or severely underpaid them?! We all know the answer to that question, yet we often expect our dogs to give continued service with little or no payment. The truth is, if you don’t pay (ie make your reward a rewarding experience) don’t expect quality work or any work at all for that matter!
So how do you make your reward, rewarding? Lets break down the steps of the process of rewarding and how to make it effective in your training program:
1-The obvious first step is to learn your dog’s currency. What motivates your dog? Don’t settle at just one type of reward, find them all and be willing to think a little outside the box. Sure most dogs like treats and that can be a great motivator…but don’t stop there! Tummy rubs, leash walking, a quick run, play, tug o war, a pat on the head, wiggly body language, and many more can be just as rewarding. The more “currency” you have, the more you can pay and expect quality work in exchange. As part of the process of learning your dog’s currency, you should also learn what they don’t accept as payment. Saying “good boy” in a monotone voice just won’t cut it! Make an effort to actively find the rewards that work for your dog so that your dog can work for you and take note of how valuable each reward is so that you know when you're cutting a big check or a little one.
2-Make clear cut decisions on what behaviors you in fact want to reward and make sure everyone in your dog's home is on the same page! For more complicated tasks or for a job that has been particularly well done, the payment should be higher (so reflect on step 1 to see what rewards are the highest value for your dog). Conversely, don’t make payments for behaviors you don’t want and don’t hand out currency for free. How motivated would your contractor be if you randomly stopped by and paid him when he hadn’t worked?! Save your money for when a job is performed.
3-Conseciously observe your dog’s behavior in training and in life and make payments for what you like. Timing is critical here. The more you can pair the payment with the action, the better your dog will understand what they are getting rewarded for. Introduce a marker word like “yes” at the moment they engage in the behavior you like to indicate to them that their payment is on it’s way (and then make sure to follow up with that reward asap).
4-Reflect on the payment that you offered. Was it in fact rewarding for your dog? Did you successfully pay them for their work? Does the quality (type of reward) or quantity (how long they got the reward for) need to be altered? Did your body language and tone of voice match the rewarding experience or take away from it? The best reward systems for dogs are those that are varied. Keep your dog excited for the work by switching up the type and length of the reward.
5-As with all dog training steps, repetition is key. The more your dog gets paid in a timely fashion for the behaviors you want, the more they will repeat them.
Rewards are a powerful part of dog training. Spending a little bit of extra time up front to learn your dog’s currency and putting it to good use will help you develop a strong relationship and a dog that is both happy and willing to work for you.