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Using rewards in dog training

In my eyes, and following the science, good dog training requires the use of positive reinforcement techniques, where rewards are used to reinforce desirable behaviours, and change behaviours in general. This is because dogs are associative learners. They learn by association and that association should be kept positive. The right rewards are essential in dog training as they motivate dogs to perform the desired behaviour and help establish a strong bond between the owner and their dog. Think of it yourself, you might be OK working a job with a bad wage, if there are other perks. It not just as straight forward as ‘high pay = happy’ and we ALL know unmotivated workmates that may have been made that way due to being punished, having unrealistic expectations being placed on them, given bad tutorage or no training at all, but being expected to perform. All of those things could easily form part of punishment based outcomes. But equally, just saying ‘we will pay you overtime’ might not change their attitude or association with their employer. That’s us!

There are several types of rewards that can be used in dog training, including food rewards, verbal praise, physical affection, playtime, and toys. And those rewards can be simple (have this snack) to more complex (substituting in a form of play that mimics their predatory drive. Food rewards (correct ones) are the most commonly used rewards in dog training as they are usually highly motivating for dogs, and they generally respond well to them. Even in times when they are not a primary motivating force, they can still be used to shape behaviours. If we have a dog that is SUPER motivated by tugging play, then using that in the long run might be the way forward, but before that, we can use a less motivating reinforcer to begin the foundations of a command or behaviour BEFORE switching on that adrenalin. In the same type of way, other types of rewards, such as verbal praise and physical affection, can also be used to reinforce desirable behaviours… Though only as backup to the main training.

We may very well use praise as a ‘you’re doing great’ alongside food as low level I want you to work for me, with a super fun game as a prize for doing this extra hard job. And we might use all 3 at the same time. Its all communication and it all varies between dogs.  

It’s also important to match rewards to the dog’s breed traits to achieve maximum effectiveness in dog training. Different dog breeds have different personalities, behaviours, and motivations. For example, some breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and Beagles, may be highly food motivated, making food rewards an effective tool in training them. Other breeds, such as Border Collies and German Shepherds, may have a strong desire to please their owners, making verbal praise and physical affection effective rewards. On top of that, we may also want to tap into herding instincts, or for a dog like spaniels, perhaps scent work. Finding and using that core motivator is most of the battle in training and we can’t rely on what WE want the dog to do, the dog needs to tell us… And usually, they do.

When selecting rewards for dog training, it is essential to consider the dog’s individual mental state, as well as their breed traits. So, trying to train a really excited, bitey, tug driven dog a settle, with a really exciting tug toy may well end up messy! If we have an over stimulated the dog, we need to vary what we do and how we do it.

With all of this, we also need to think about environmental rewards. So, in nervous dogs, the reward MIGHT be distance from the scary thing, in some breeds, wild animals might be the ‘reward’ the dog is seeking. It may be that the dog is self-rewarding just by sniffing and all of this is really good information that helps inform us of how to treat a dog most effectively. It actually gets quite complex, but that’s why I’m here! I do all that work in the background to give you simple solutions.

In conclusion, rewards are an essential component of dog training and can be used to reinforce desirable behaviours effectively. There are several types of rewards that can be used, but it’s crucial to consider the dog’s individual preferences, as well as their breed traits and breeding. By matching rewards to the dog’s breed traits, or predatory motor pattern, owners can achieve maximum effectiveness in their training efforts and help prevent unwanted behaviours from developing.

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