I think it’s fair to say that we all love to reward our dogs with a special treat or biscuit. Especially those of us who have chosen to use positive reinforcement to teach our dogs the behaviours and manners we would like them to adopt.
When people first start training with me they’re quite often amazed at how many treats I will ask them to use in a session in order to reward good behaviour in their dogs. And when I’m teaching something new to my dogs I do use a lot of rewards to let them know that’s what I want.
Great rewards and frequent rewards build fantastic behaviours – or to use a scientific speak:
Reinforcement builds behaviour
A great book that explains the process of how dogs learn:
So if I want my dog to do a fast and accurate behaviour such as a Sit, I should reinforce (reward) them whenever their bottom hits the ground. Over time I would add distractions to build into the behaviour that the word Sit means Sit regardless of whatever else might be happening.
Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But the bit people seem to struggle with is when to fade the amount of rewards they’re using.
Because here’s the thing – I wouldn’t pay my PA for every email that hit my inbox for them to respond to – it would get expensive pretty quickly! But I would pay her a good wage for an overall good days work, with some bonus or other when she had gone above and beyond.
But lots of people who wish to work in a positive reinforcement world will pay for every behaviour their dog gives them e.g. 1 Sit, 1 treat, 1 Down, 1 treat etc. It doesn’t create a highly motivated dog, more one that is – dare I say it? – a bit spoiled!
Here’s the thing – reinforcement to your dog, isn’t just about treats and toys.
I don’t want to have to carry around vast amounts of food rewards in my pocket for the rest of my dogs life in order to be able to control them and keep them safe. And I don’t need to if I use rewards in their environment rather than relying on treats/ toys.
Reinforcement can take many guises – leaving the house for a walk, going into the back garden to play, being let off the lead for a run, spending time with you, coming up on the sofa for a cuddle.. I’m sure you can think of many examples for your own dogs.
So my question to you is – how many of these rewards does your dog have to earn, and how many do they just get given without you thinking about it?