Rewarding your dog: Food for thought!
by Imogen Lloyd // February 2018
Rewarding your dog: Food for thought!
Just like us, dogs will choose to do behaviours that have some sort of benefit to them. For instance, we choose to do hobbies because we enjoy them, we meet up with friends because we have a laugh, we go to work because we get paid. It simply makes no sense to keep doing behaviours that give us nothing.
Dogs are the same - they choose to do behaviours that have a positive outcome for them. Therefore, when training, if we make sure that the behaviours we want our dogs to repeat are rewarded, as they will then CHOOSE to do them again. Usually, in a training class, the most effective form of reward to use is food – however, we don’t want dogs being given lots of food all the time, for any tiny bit of good behaviour. Instead, as our dogs learn, we need to adjust our rewards to suit the difficulty and the type of task we are asking them to perform.
When teaching a new behaviour, we reward it well and often to show the dog that it is a behaviour worth repeating. However, once the dog has learnt the new behaviour, we can start reducing the reward so it matches the degree of difficulty of the task. We want to do this gradually – if we reduce, or even stop, rewards suddenly then our dogs will realise very quickly that there is nothing in it for them, and stop doing the new behaviour.
Here are a couple of ways to think about phasing out your rewards
Reduce the value of the reward
Once your dog can do a behaviour reliably and easily when you ask, you can start reducing the value of reward. This could by gradually switching from treats that are ‘to die for’, to less interesting kibble.
Change the type of reward
Firstly, you need to work out what your dog most values – is it food, your attention, playing or does it vary in different situations. Then you can begin to switch between the type of rewards you use. For instance, instead of rewarding every sit with a treat you can start rewarding some with a ‘good boy, aren’t you clever’. Sometimes use verbal praise and attention for some beautiful loose lead walking, or if your dog loves toys, throw a ball instead of giving a treat for recalling.
Change the frequency of reward
Changing how often we reward is a fantastic way of keeping our dogs doing the behaviours we want. Dogs are gamblers - if a behaviour gets rewarded occasionally then they will keep doing it as there is the possibility of getting the reward the next time. Start rewarding behaviours intermittently and switch how often you are rewarding eg. after two steps of loose ead walking, then five then three then seven. Don’t fall into the trap of rewarding every 5th step or every 8th sit as they will quickly learn to predict the pattern and when they should try a bit harder!
Expect more per treat
Gradually expect your dog to do more in order to get the reward. For instance, stretch your loose lead walking, by gradually increasing how many steps you expect before giving the reward. When recalling, initially only expect your dog to successfully return over a metre or two, but gradually increase the distance your dog travels to get the reward. If he manages, to also recall past another person or dog, add an extra treat!
Remember, while we may look to reduce food treats over time, we still need to reward our dogs for showing the behaviours we want, if we want those behaviours to continue.
It’s just a case of choosing the most suitable reward for:
The difficulty of the task
The type of task
Your particular dog in that particular setting.
Top training tips
Don’t reduce rewards before your dog is ready, if you see them struggling or looking confused then help them out by going back a few steps.
Understand that the difficulty of doing a behaviour can vary hugely depending on the distractions in the environment eg. sitting on cue at home may not need any further reward than ‘good boy’, but sitting by the kerb in the high street may deserve a food treat as it is considerably harder.
Always reward recall with a reward your dog REALLY values – this is a life-saving behaviour and one that can get your dog out of lots of sticky situations. Your dog needs to know that coming back to you is always going to be an even MORE rewarding thing to do than playing with other dogs, meeting people, hunting rabbits or chasing footballs!
Come along to Dog School to learn more about how to progress your dog’s training and teach them some new skills.