When training your dog or just, in general, it is important to reward them for the wanted behavior. Not just to reinforce that behavior but to also continually grow your bond. Rewards should not be limited purely to giving treats. Machine gunning treats down your dog’s throat can do more harm than good.
Firstly, obviously, it is not in the best interests of your dog’s general health. Treats should be less than 10% of their daily calorie intake.
Secondly, you may find yourself with a dog that will only do what you ask if they think there is a treat in it for them. Also, it is not the best way to strengthen your dogs bond with you. It is also important to note the difference between a reward and a bribe. A reward is given after the desired action by your dog. A bribe is held in front of the dog like a lure before the desired result.
Rewarding your dog generally falls into three methods:- Gift, Verbal or Touch.
A Gift reward
A gift is fairly obvious. It is giving something to your dog such as treat or a toy. It can even include “life rewards”. For example, if your dog loves going for a walk have them sit and be calm before leaving (the wanted behavior). Then go for the walk (the reward). These life rewards can easily be incorporated into everyday life.
As mentioned, excessive use of treats can have some negative results. So if using treats it is important to reduce the treats as quickly as possible eventually not needing the treat to get the behavior. This is best done by using other reward methods in conjunction with the treat. This way when the treat reward is phased out the behavior continues to be reinforced.
Using a favorite toy and having a quick game is a good way to reward your dog. It also helps to release energy making your dog calmer and builds your bond at the same time. Playing with your dog can be a powerful relationship building tool, as well as a potent reward.
A Verbal reward
A verbal reward is also fairly obvious. Giving praise such as happy talk or a simple “good boy or girl”. Many dogs find praise naturally rewarding. Even dogs who don’t seem to can become praise seekers if you frequently pair your praise with another reward such as a treat or fun game.
A Touch reward
Touch is probably the most underrated of the three reward methods. There are numerous places on your dog’s body that have a large concentration of nerve endings. If patted or rubbed these areas release endorphins to the brain. These include dopamine (the reward chemical) and serotonin that gives your dog that natural high feeling.
Examples of this are between the front legs under the chest or where the ears join the head. Other areas are rubbing them on the side or on the top front of the rear leg where they have the skin fold.
Quite often your dog will lift up the rear leg so you can hit the spot they like. If you experiment with your dog you will find other spots that they respond to.
It is important to be aware of your dog’s feedback when trying different touch techniques as they may enjoy some places being touched and be uncomfortable in other areas. For example, your dog may enjoy being rubbed on the chest but may shy away from a head pat.
If your dog ducks or pulls away it is probably not rewarding. If they engage, come towards you or asks for more, then it probably is rewarding.
Another touch spot that makes your dog calmer is on the stop (between the eyes on the bridge of the nose). If your dog is showing signs of being nervous just rub here with your thumb and notice how it calms them.
Another way to calm a nervous dog is the “calm hold” which is to simply go down on one knee and firmly but gently put your hand on your dog’s shoulder to reassure them.
Timing of Rewards
The timing of rewards is also very important. For best results, it is crucial to reward or praise your dog the instant they respond to the command, at least within a few seconds. Additionally, it is important to cut down on the rewards slightly when your dog starts to follow the command regularly, especially food reward.
This is important as you risk watering down the effectiveness of your rewards. This can make future training sessions more challenging when it comes to holding your dog’s attention and making them feel suitably rewarded. You can still give occasional food rewards to keep them on their toes and thinking they might get a food reward next time. Soon enough your dog will be content with the satisfaction of verbal or physical rewards.
Tailor the reward your give according to the difficulty of the action your dog has performed. Use a lower value one for behaviors that are well established or when there are little or no distractions.
When learning anything new or in more challenging situations the reward will need to be more motivating. Examples of different level of reward may be using a more bland treat such as their normal kibble as lower value and a more desirable treat such as cooked chicken as a higher value treat.
Or using simple praise as the lower value reward and a combination of rewards such as praise, a pat and a fun game with a favorite toy.
Rewarding your dog falls into one of three categories, gift, verbal, touch. A gift is giving something to your dog such as a treat or toy. Verbal is happy talk and praise. Touch is using a touch that your dog enjoys.
The timing of the reward is important and should be immediately after the action is performed. Tailor the level of the treat to suit the situation. Higher value rewards should be given for learning something new or under distraction. For behaviors that are well established a lower level reward is fine. Having a variety of different ways in which you can reward your dog makes it easier to select the right incentive for the situation.