Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding. For example, if your dog gets a treat when he sits, he will be more likely to sit again in the future. That’s why positive reinforcement training, or training with rewards, is so effective. However, as with any skill, to be as successful as possible, positive reinforcement training takes practice and an accurate understanding of the mechanics. Here are four tips to help you train new behaviors effectively with rewards.
Rewards From Your Dog’s Point of View
You might think dog biscuits are the best treat, but if your dog finds them boring, you won’t be reinforcing anything by using them in your training. Make sure you choose something truly rewarding from your dog’s point of view. Rewards can even be praise, a toy, or a chance to play a game — anything your dog loves makes a great reinforcement.
The wrong choice of reward can hurt your training. If your dog dislikes something, it will decrease his desire to repeat a behavior. For example, “rewarding” your dog with a pat on the top of his head might seem like a good idea, but most dogs don’t enjoy that kind of touch. If your dog dislikes or only tolerates head pats, you will actually decrease his obedience in the future because he will associate doing what you ask with something negative.
Make a list of all the things your dog enjoys, then rank the items from most exciting to least. If your dog’s favorite thing is chasing a baseball, put that on top. If kibble is only exciting at mealtime, that goes at the bottom, and so on. Now you have your dog’s hierarchy of rewards. The tougher the training challenge, such as learning a new behavior or facing a distracting environment, the higher-ranked the reward should be. In other words, use the kibble when you can get away with it and save that baseball for the most difficult tasks.
Rate of Reinforcement
An environment can provide its own rewards like interesting smells, the sight of other dogs, or the chance to greet another person. That means the rewards you offer are always in competition with “rewards” out in the world. Until your dog masters working around distractions, your rate of reinforcement (how often you give rewards) should be frequent enough to keep you and the training session more exciting than the environment. If not, the wrong behavior can be reinforced by rewards that are out of your control.
A common example is teaching your dog to “heel.” Sights, sounds, smells, and even garbage on the sidewalk can all reinforce walking at the end of the leash instead of at your side. You need to be sure you’re rewarding your dog often enough to compete with these distractions. In the beginning, one treat every 15 steps won’t make an impact, but one treat for every step should keep your dog interested in walking beside you.
How quickly your dog gets his reward can also have an impact on training. If you take too long to deliver the treat, your dog can become confused about what exactly he’s being rewarded for. A typical mistake during house-training is to offer the dog a treat when he comes back in the house after doing his business. But how does the dog know the treat is for going to the bathroom outside rather than coming in the back door? Make sure you deliver your rewards as quickly as possible after your dog has performed the behavior you want to reinforce.
With practice, using a “marker” — like a whistle or a clicker — when you train can give you incredible precision with your timing. You can use your marker at the exact moment your dog is doing what you want to reinforce. Because every click or whistle is followed by a reward, your dog will know exactly why he is being rewarded.
Placement of Rewards
Just as slow treat delivery can cause confusion, so can poor reward placement. In other words, what is your dog doing when you give him his treat? If you’re training a stationary position like “sit,” your dog should get his reward while he is sitting. If he must get up and walk over to get his treat, how will he know if the treat is for sitting or for walking?
If you want your dog to work at a distance, such as staying on his bed while you walk away, find ways to reward him while he’s still on the bed. Toss him a treat or use a remote reward delivery device. It takes practice and planning to deliver treats quickly and accurately in the right location, but it pays off in faster learning for your dog.
Training with rewards is fun, builds the human-canine bond, and best of all, encourages a love of learning in dogs. Using these four tips when training your dog will help maximize your success and tap into the real power of positive reinforcement.