Dog Training Tip of the Week: The Importance of Changing the Reward

This week one of my dogs reminded me – well I should say, “re-taught” me – one of the fundamentals of reward based dog training:  the reward you’re offering the dog has to be of significant value to the dog, and here’s the kicker:  when circumstances change, the reward has to change (increase in value) as well. 

Here’s what I’m talking about.  You teach your dog to “sit” for a treat in your living room.  Your dog sits over and over again for a piece of dog kibble.  Then you take the dog out on a walk and ask him to sit at the curb before you cross the street.  You’re holding the standard piece of kibble over his head but it’s as if your dog has never heard the word “sit” in his life and the piece of kibble holds no allure. 

Don’t despair!  It’s not that your training failed or your dog has turned stubborn or stupid.  You may simply need to bring a higher-value reward with you when you go on a walk.  Maybe a soft-chewy dog treat, dehydrated liver, or some pieces of hot dog, chicken, or cheese.  Any time you change the situation or increase distractions, you may need to switch to a reward of higher value to motivate your dog to perform the behaviors you’ve been working on. 

This simple concept is especially important if you are trying to get your dog to perform an alternative “good” behavior instead of becoming highly aroused and engaging in a behavior like jumping up on people or barking.  These behaviors are self-rewarding, which means that the dog loves to do them because they are incredibly fun and satisfying – no treat required!  To convince your dog that she should sit for greeting a visitor instead of jumping-up, you’ll need a reward that is valuable enough to really get your dog’s attention – and hold it.  The reward you’re offering has to be better than the satisfaction of jumping up and acting the fool.  You might be amazed at the results you’ll get if you’ve got a cube of ham in your hand instead of a standard “training treat.”   

Same holds true if you’re trying to train your nervous dog to lie down and relax when stressful things are happening all around him.  He might ignore the standard treats, but if you offer him something really appealing, you may be able to get his attention and engage him in some counter-conditioning.

This was the scenario that led to my “duh” moment earlier this week.  I was trying to help my nervous dog settle down and engage in his training (and coping) behaviors while in a stressful environment.  His ability to focus on me and ignore all the imaginary threats around him increased 1,000-fold when I put aside the training treats and started offering him moist & meaty type dog food.  So simple! 

Below: Li'l Rocky learning a "down stay" in dog class required cubes of cheddar cheese; to get him to do that at the park, I might need filet mignon.

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