It is a simple, but well-known fact in the dog training world, that dogs will do what is good for them.
They do what is rewarding to them.
It’s All In The Reward
We really can’t have a blog post
about rewards and how responsive your dog is to the rewards on offer, without making it abundantly clear that dogs will do what is rewarding to them.
It is the first rule of dog training.
The trouble is that what your dog finds rewarding is not the same as what we think she finds rewarding.
What gets rewarded gets repeated.
This is the first law of how dogs learn. However, the second law of dog training is just as significant as the first one, and that law is:
Rewards need to be rewarding.
You might think that it is enough to praise your dog by telling her “Good Girl” or “Clever Girl”.
However, when you are saying that, your dog will be thinking: “that is all well and good and extremely nice of you to say so... But that scent over there is mighty interesting”. Before you know it, she will be pulling you off your feet and ignoring your pleas to come back to heel, rather following the scent that has piqued her interest.
The rewards that you offer your dog for doing the things you want her to do, like walking nicely on a loose lead, must be exciting enough to convince her that the better deal is to stay with you.
You need to find that one thing that your dog values above all else.
The reward you choose to use must be appealing enough to stop her pulling on the lead as soon as an intoxicating smell wafts across her nose or a leaf tumbles and dances in the wind catching her attention.
It sounds so easy when dog trainers tell you to use a treat to reward your dog for doing something right.
The truth though is that using rewards when training your dog is not as simple as it first appears.
Yes, it is true that in an ideal world we reward the dog for making the right choices. However, your dog’s ability to respond to the rewards we are offering depends on a lot of different things.
Why Won’t My Dog Take Treats?
The first thing you must evaluate is whether your dog is in the right frame of mind to be able to take the rewards on offer.
For example; if your dog gets scared by a loud bang, she will be unable to play with a toy or even eat a treat. Emotionally she will be preparing to flee. When you are running for your life, you do not need your digestive system. All the energy that would typically go into digesting food is now being diverted to her muscles to allow her to get away faster.
This means that a scared dog is physically unable to take or eat treats.
Finding The Magic Reward
Secondly, if the reward you are offering your dog doesn't trump the reward she is getting from following her instinct, then she will do what she finds more rewarding, ignoring any instructions coming from you.
Let’s assume your dog’s ultimate reward is following rabbit scents. Your dog typically loves treats. However, you have tried all sorts of different food rewards and, in this situation, food is not what she wants. No amount of cut up roast beef is going to distract her from her primary focus: following that scent.
You need to get creative.
Let’s pretend we can bottle the scent of the rabbits and infuse her favourite toy with it. We could then use this toy with its tantalising rabbit scent to reward her for making the right choice.
Now wouldn’t that be fabulous?
Luckily for us, toys exist that are made from rabbit skin, these toys tend to be irresistible to dogs who love to follow rabbit scents.
So, if your dog loves rabbit scents, then you can use a toy like this to reward her with a quick game of tug or chase-the-toy every time she gives us a split second of attention.
Over time those glimpses of attention will become a few seconds of focus, and it won’t be long before you are able to ask for longer and longer moments of concentration — one thing we need to bear in mind though is that we must start teaching this away from distractions.
The above is an example of how you can use the one thing that your dog desires above all else and turn it into a reward for her making the right choice.
You will need to put in some work to identify that one thing that your dog will do anything for. Every dog is different!
Turning Distractions Into Successes
Thirdly, the number of distractions there are in the area where you are walking, training and playing with your dog is another crucial thing to consider.
When you first start working on any struggle you need to carefully manage the level of distraction present when you train your dog.
By starting with the lowest level of distraction possible, you will be setting your dog up for success.
Instead of starting a new exercise in the park, at the beach or in the woods, you need to start each new game or exercise in a quiet room in your home. Once your dog has learnt what is required and “got it”, you can then move to a different place with a few more distractions going on.
By slowly building up the level of distractions you will be able to make sure that your dog succeeds every step of the way. Once she has mastered the game in the home, you can take her into the back garden. Again, going back to basics and working your way through the steps of the exercise until your dog “gets it” in this new environment.
By gradually increasing the level of distractions we can make sure that your dog succeeds at each stage. From the back garden we might progress to the front yard, then to the little grassy square at the end of your road etc.
The other thing to remember is that as the level of distraction in the environment increases you also need to use higher value rewards to keep your dog engaged with you.
Using Low And High-Value Rewards
At home, you will be able to use a portion of your dog’s regular food as the reward, but as you move to other areas, you will need to switch to using higher value rewards to maintain the same level of engagement and response from her.
Talking about rewards, there is one other thing we need to consider, and that is how to deliver the rewards. What I mean by this is that there is more to reward based training than just shoving the food into your dog’s mouth and watching her eat it!
The way you present the reward, and the speed with which you do so, also has a significant impact on what your dog is learning. Sometimes you will need to do rapid-fire the rewards straight into your dog’s mouth; creating more excitement and more engagement with you.
At other times, for example, when you are looking for calmness, it is better to slow down the delivery of the reward in such a way that the anticipation of the food’s arrival gives you the quietness and stillness that you are looking for.
Even the placement of the reward onto a blanket or bed can help convey the right message to your dog. For example, when you are playing bed games, you want your dog to value the bed so by placing the rewards on the bed, rather than delivering the food directly to your dog's mouth, you are helping her to calm down.