Why are rewards so important in dog training and how do we make sure our dogs are motivated to work with us?

Rewards and the importance of getting them right is something that some owners can find tricky.

Rewards are usually seen as treats or praise but there is so much more out there that can be rewarding for your dog. What we need to do as owners is find out what exactly motivates our dogs and learn to use this to our advantage when training.

Having the correct rewards and motivation are essential for successful training and it is really important that we learn what our dog loves in order to use this as a reward and reinforcer in training.

Click here to check out my earlier blogs for my take on rewards.

It is important to say that each dog is an individual and what they find rewarding will be as individual as they are. Along with this how rewarding they find something can change due to the environment they are in and their arousal levels at that time.

For my dogs, food is their biggest reinforcer. They do like play but at this stage it’s not a strong enough reward for me to use it to reward them in agility.

Play is fantastic and we do use play as a reinforcer at home and we are at the stage now of introducing play to new environments as a reward when training.

Pre covid I would have a one to one training session with my trainer, both dogs have 30 mins each and in the picture below is what I typically take with me to a session.

There is our own brand dried treats in the pots, cheese, ham and chicken. I use a Lotus Ball to deliver the food reward when training certain skills.

It is important to have a range of treats available and I often mix and match what I give them in training to suit what we are doing. When training something that requires a bit more work on their part I make sure I pay them well with the food that they like the most.

Here is what I came back with after that particular session :

As you can see, although I took this all with me I didn’t use it all! I used mostly the chicken, also some ham and a few of the dried treats. The cheese was not used at all. I’d rarther have too much than too little as I can always save anything I’ve not used for another day.

When training my rate of reinforcement is quite high and I jackpot the rewards too when the dogs are doing exceptionally well. I want to make sure my dogs continue to have high motivation for the sport and also that I pay them well for their work.

This is sometimes a common mistake that people can make – not rewarding their dog correctly and not having the correct form of motivation for them to want to do the work in the first place.

Imagine yourself being asked to go to work for below minimum wage or for free? I don’t think you’d like it would you?

Our dogs are the same they need to see value in what we are asking them to do.

Often in training the dog can get value from a number of things we would prefer them to ignore; other dogs, sniffing, birds etc. The environment the dogs are in can provide a range of fantastic rewards for our dogs. These distractions are opportunities for the dogs to seek fun and reinforcement away from us.

Sometimes in training when dogs get distracted what often happens is the handler wrongly blames the dog, the floor, the other dogs, weather etc etc the list goes on! In actual fact all that is happening is that the dog is finding their fun/ reward elsewhere. 

A reward is something your dog finds rewarding even if you don’t!

I know we find rolling in 💩 disgusting but for some dogs it is the best thing in the world and they will seek out opportunities to practice this behaviour!

Take spaniels as an example – they have been bred for generations to use their noses to hunt. They are intrinsically reinforced by sniffing, that means every sniff is reinforcing the sniffing behaviour so they will repeat it which isn’t always useful in the agility ring! We need to make it more rewarding to work with us in that scenario and give them an outlet for that natural behaviour elsewhere (and away from the agility ring)

It is sometimes hard to know where to start when it comes to rewards so I have a few tips that may help you.

Firstly what I would suggest to any dog owner is to ditch the bowl!

What I mean by this is to use your dogs normal food for training. This doesn’t have to be as mammoth a task as it sounds, we talk about it lots on our training but if you would like more help with this then get in touch.

Both my dogs ditch the bowl as part of their everyday life. It’s transformed the relationship I have with them and I can use the food that they were going to get anyway to reward their good choices throughout the day without the need to fill them with treats!

Ditching the bowl is fantastic for relationship building.

The relationship you have with your dogs is at the heart of everything you ask them to do!

Good relationship = Good training!

So if I ditch the bowl then why do I still use treats??

Well this is because I want my dogs to be motivated and to be super excited about what we are learning. I also want to pay them well when they get it right. If we pay well with something they love they will repeat that behaviour more – it is that simple!

We only use the food pictured above for agility training they don’t get them any other time. If they got this food all the time they wouldn’t see the value of it in training, why would they work and try hard for the food they get for doing minimal at home?

On the days when they have these extras I drastically reduce the amount of their normal kibble/ food so they don’t gain weight.

But here is the thing… These are treats / food my dogs absolutely love! They get super excited about them! Don’t make the mistake of using boring treats when training, your dogs won’t want them! They will end up displeased, disinterested and disengaged and they will seek things in the environment instead.

You want your dog to be really excited about the reward your giving them, then they will be really motivated to do the task in hand! Think of it like you getting a bonus in your pay packet at work.

If your dog is lacking motivation or if they are easily distracted, find what it is for them that flips that switch on!

Mix it up don’t always bring the same food to training even if that is high value – if you had the same thing day in day out you’d get sick of it right?

When I’m training my dogs they aren’t sure what type of food they are going to taste next and that is what keeps their spark, motivation and drive!

Does this mean we always feed them a mountain of food in training?

NO

As my dogs skills develop I adapt my rewards adequately for their needs. For example if my dogs have a well established behaviour at home they wouldn’t get the same reward as they would if they were learning a new skill in a distracting environment.

I often hear owners say things like “They will do anything for cheese, they are only doing it for the food” Which in some cases may be true BUT it is how we use the food that counts – there are all manner of things going on in training and using food as a reinforcer opens up all kinds of (geeky) things such as transfers of value, reinforcement schedules and more – but all that is for another day!

Don’t be stingy with reinforcement, you wouldn’t like it if your boss was stingy with your wages! Dog training is the equivalent of you going to work for money! Dogs work for us not only because man has bred them for generations to work alongside us but also because of the reinforcement they gain from doing so – food, praise, play, relationship it is all part of the jigsaw!

Be your dogs geek and find what it is that motivates them to supercharge your dog training, relationship and to give you real life results!

Happy Training

Katrina 🐾

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