When teaching a dog a new skill, or practicing established commands, praise and reward are obviously very important. We use them to mark the right behaviors and encourage other desirable outcomes. This article will discuss a few factors when it comes to dealing with reward and your dog.
What is a Reward? A reward can be many things, not just a treat or piece of food. In addition to treats and food, a reward can be verbal praise, a toy, freedom to play, or even physical touch; basically anything that is important to your dog.
Which Reward to use? All dogs are different, so ultimately it is up to you to read your dog and figure out what is important to him or her. If I am working with a real toy motivated dog that is not overly food motivated, a toy may be a better motivator then a treat in this case. On the other hand, if I am working with the same dog and the toy is becoming too much of a distraction, I may switch to food in order to help the dog focus a bit more. Now of course as the training continues I will re-introduce the toy and work him through the distraction factor that the toy originally provided.
When to Reward? Our general timing is crucial when working with our dogs, and the accuracy of your timing when it comes to reward is no exception. It depends on the particular skill that you are working on, but a general rule is that you have 2 seconds to mark a behavior for them to make an association.
Bringing It All Together – Let’s discuss two different skills and point out the right times to reward your dog, what to reward with, and why.
Rewarding during loose leash walking – If the goal of loose leash walking to to eliminate tension in the leash, our reward should be given out as soon as slack goes into that leash, even if it is just for a few seconds or steps. The dog has to know when they are currently doing the desired behavior, even if it is just for a short amount of time. By marking the correct behavior, you will see the length of time increase that the dog is on the loose leash, and you will be able to travel greater distances on that loose leash.
In the case of loose leash walking, I am a big fan of verbal praise. We are able to reward the dog at the appropriate time, while continuing to keep the dog walking on the loose leash. Food or toys on the other hand will quickly take the dog out of the correct position in order to receive the reward.
Rewarding during recall – Our definition of come or here is for the dog to come into you and stay within touching distance of you; it does not mean come within 5 feet and stop, nor does it mean come into me and keep on going. The timing of marking a recall should happen when the dog has completed the task, which again means to be within touching distance. If you were to verbally praise your dog as soon as they turn around and started coming into you, the dog often thinks that they have finished the command and quickly move onto to doing something else; making the recall not yet finished.
When rewarding a recall you have several options. Food can easily be used because the dog is right in front of you, a toy can be thrown (just make sure to release the dog and let him or her know you actually want them to play with the ball or toy), and physical touch is great as well.
Whatever skill you are working on, be sure to mark the correct behavior within 2 seconds, and use the appropriate reward for the situation and your dog; your dog has to get something out of it!
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