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Training and Rewards

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

Why 'sit' might not be the best place to begin

In my experience when people talk about the foundations of dog training or 'going back to basics' they often mean sit, down and stay. There is nothing wrong with teaching these to your dog, but I feel they take us away from beginning with the most important question 'what will be the reward for the dog'?

Why? Quite simply because rewards are crucial to survival and as such have the biggest influence upon our behaviour, this also applies to our dogs.

Rewards from the environment cause us to eat food, drink water, seek shelter and reproduce. Without the desire to seek out these rewards we may not survive, and an absence of this seeking behaviour may equate to poor physical or mental health. We recognise this in our dogs as well as ourselves, if your dog shows no desire to eat, drink, walk or play you would take them to vet for an examination. If no physical reason was found, then we may consider that your dog is depressed.

We may equate the term reward as a bonus for exceptional performance, but this is not a complete description and can be unhelpful when planning to teach dogs new behaviour, or helping dogs settle into a new environment such as a new home or day care.

In my dog training I am always looking for ways to help dogs learn and to make the learning experience as pleasurable as possible. Leading our dogs into a reward centred life. I want to know 'what is the reward the dog is finding from this behaviour or activity'?

The traditional approach is to apply a reward of our choice to the behaviour we would like the dog to do instead. However, without understanding the reward behind the original behaviour, our choice might not hit the mark and we are left in a never-ending search for that elusive 'high value' reward.

In order for learning to begin a dog needs to be prepared to approach without force or undue pressure in the form of bribes.

Some of the things a dog may need to be prepared approach are:

  • The training environment – are they comfortable in the classroom or your training space at home, any resistance to entering should be dealt with before the lesson begins

  • The trainer – if you are working with a trainer and your dog shows avoidance behaviours around that trainer then you should listen, your dog may be trying to tell you something.

  • The training activity – dogs always try their best, if your dog is showing reluctance to join in an activity, or continue with training, stop and take notice, is your dog trying to communicate fatigue, confusion, anxiety?

  • The food reward – the piece of food is a part of the reward system, all of the above could work together to represent the reward, but we tend to get focused on the quality of the food which stops us considering the big picture. From my training class experience, once a dog understands a training activity the type of food used makes little difference to them.

Once the dog approaches, rewards have the potential to produce learning.

Dogs can learn in two ways; classical (Pavlovian) conditioning where they learn without needing to act, or operant conditioning where the dog makes an action (operates) on their environment. The two occur frequently together and a good example of this is the dog that gets excited as their owner prepares for training class. We haven’t focused on teaching the dogs to get excited about training, but they have enjoyed themselves in class that they now attach these rewarding feelings to the preparation process, you can say they have learned automatically that training class is a positive event .

By making a decision to approach the dog learns which rewards and different combinations of rewards are attractive. They will be motivated to continue to approach these activities time and time again.

However, not all potential rewards produce pleasurable learning. Your dog may have made some mistakes, or through no fault of its own discovered that some environments, other dogs, people or objects need to be avoided. The learning process is the same, your dog may have initially approached something that was potentially rewarding or something that they had previously experienced as rewarding only to learn that the result is pain, separation, frustration or fear.

I work with a lot of dogs who have started to bark at other dogs on lead, quite often the trigger is an attack by another dog. Up until the attack the dog had happily walked in the park and on the day, they had approached their walk with anticipation but out of the blue they experienced fear and the pain of injury. The dog has now learned an avoidance behaviour, barking at other dogs, the dog is now motivated to move away to experience reward, under these conditions it is very hard for a dog to learn new skills and behaviours. It is my experience that dogs do better when they are removed to a new location to learn before trying out their new skills in the previously anxiety provoking park.

The first goal for learning is to ensure the dog is comfortable in the environment and ready to learn. We follow this protocol:

  1. Dog is happy to enter training room

Only once the three of these are in place will we move on to training behaviours. These three foundations are key, and they may take several weeks to establish, thankfully we have lots of helpers who can work with dogs wherever they feel most comfortable. It is tempting to skip a step and move from 1 to asking a dog to ‘sit’, ‘mat/settle’ or ‘down’ – this is asking too much of a sensitive dog.

The behaviours and activities we move onto teach encourage dogs to learn how to make decisions, switch their focus and problem solve, with plenty of opportunity to take breaks and tell us if they are no longer experiencing reward.

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