Why rewarding your dog is so important
Imagine the scene – you start a new job, it’s difficult and stressful, but it’s OK, you are going to get paid. You probably also get feedback from your boss and those around you. So you know you’re doing a great job. Then you get paid! Fantastic, that makes it worthwhile. Now imagine that after a few months your boss comes to see you and says “You’re doing a great job, just what we want. I know you are enjoying the work, so we’ve decided we’re not going to pay you any more.” How do you feel about your job now? Would you carry on working just as hard? Hmm.
Last week I was lucky enough to see a couple of friends with three of my (grown up) puppies. Well I do see lots of my pups regularly because they belong to friends, since I am not a commercial breeder, in other words a puppy farmer. Anyway, I took some photos and someone asked me how we got the dogs to ‘pose’ for these. I (rather flippantly) said “well they’re Border Collies so of course they do as they’re told!” It was a bit of an exaggeration, as six Border Collies on a new walk will obviously be pretty excited! We did have to manage them and I did have to keep my wits about me. But the main reason we are able to sit them in a line is because we reward them!
What is a reward?
Please remember that there are different kinds of reward, not just food. For us, we can be rewarded by money, but also by praise, or approval. We also enjoy physical praise, such as a hug or kiss from a loved one. Think about how that makes you feel? It’s the same for your dog. Even a verbal ‘Well done!’ can be rewarding in the right context. In summary, rewards for your dog can be:
- petting or stroking
- play with a toy (tugging)
- verbal praise
You might need to mix it up and offer different rewards at different times. Or use bigger rewards at different times. It is important to understand what is rewarding for your dog. Whatever you use, make sure you have it to hand. I use Waggs Training Treats because the dogs love them and they don’t crumble, but are small and easy to break up.
The right reward for the task
There needs to be a difference between ‘an everyday reward’ and a bonus. What would you get a bonus for? Usually, this will be for something extra, including an extra effort. It’s the same for your dog. If you are training something, the sequence should be:
- action – reward
- action – reward
- action – reward
- bigger action – jumbo reward!
For example, if you are practising wait. You might ask for a couple of seconds’ wait (reward). Then you might step away and then back in (reward). Next you might step in and out a couple of times (reward). Finally, you step away a bit further and wait a few seconds longer. If this is successful, bingo! Jumbo reward! This might be a few extra treats, or a ‘release’ – OK and then play.
What about when it goes wrong?
It doesn’t always go right, does it? If you are practising wait and your dog moves, what should you do? Tell them off? No. Just calmly put them back into position and ask them to wait once again. Don’t expect perfection (and you won’t be disappointed). Reward the bits that go right and ignore the rest.
Just an aside about wait training; try not to touch your dog if they break their wait and you have to move them back to position. Touching your dog is a reward. You can’t always avoid it, but the less you touch them in this case, the less confusing it is for your dog.
As always, be realistic about what you can achieve. Set yourself and your dog up to succeed, not to fail. Take into account their age and experience. Be pleased with what they can do. I’m telling myself this as I’m writing it by the way; it’s hard to remember!
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NB: I am not a dog trainer, or a dog behaviourist, just a dog breeder and owner. I can only offer my opinion, based on my experience.