Let me tell you a story. Every night your partner cooks you dinner. Sometimes it is left in the oven. Sometimes it is on the stove. Sometimes it is in the microwave and sometimes it is on the back shelf in the fridge. You aren’t told where it is. You just have to find it yourself. And on a rare occasion, instead of finding your dinner, you’ll sometimes find a plane ticket to an exotic summer vacation spot. You love it but you were expecting your dinner. When we are unclear with our reward markers, this is how it is for our dogs.
Sometimes we say yes and we want the dog to remain in position. Sometimes we say yes and we want them to go get the food behind them. Sometimes we say yes and then toss a treat. Sometimes we say yes and they don’t get any food, just praise. And sometimes we say yes and we want them to interact with a toy. Personally, I’d be rather frustrated with all of this. I’d be calling a friend to complain or complaining on Facebook or showing other displacement signals. When we are aiming for clarity with our sport dogs, clear reward markers are a great place to start. We need our words to be valuable. A reward marker should predict a certain type of reward and it shouldn’t be interchangeable with another type of reward. Our dogs who have big feelings about their rewards often will show signs of frustration. Frustrated dogs oftentimes show it by disengaging or they will whine and bark or they will become frantic.
When we are clear about where the reinforcement will be delivered and what type of reinforcement will be delivered then we give our dogs the gift of clarity. We teach them exactly where their dinner will be and when we want to reward with a car ride or a toy, then we use a different cue instead of the food reward marker.
The most common reward placements are come get the food from my hand, get the food from the floor and I’ll bring the food to you. Using these three reward markers, we can build commitment to a behavior such as a stay and we can test our dog’s understanding of the stay behavior. Tossing the food to the dog can build our distance behaviors such as going around a cone and using our come get the reward from my hand reward marker is helpful for reinforcing recalls and loose leash walking. We can also use different reward markers to build clarity and test how well a dog knows a cue with distractions.
Where and how we reward behaviors matter. We can speed up training by rewarding the dog in position for stays. We can build distance behaviors by throwing the reward to the dog in agility. We can keep the rewards in a cookie jar or on top of the crate and teach our dogs to work without rewards on our body to prepare them for being in the ring at a trial. There are lots of ways that we can reinforce our dog’s behaviors and how we do it impacts our dog’s enthusiasm, accuracy, ring readiness and commitment. We can work smarter instead of harder and we can achieve faster results and happier, less frustrated dogs in the process.
We have two upcoming seminars on how simple changes to where you reward can strengthen behaviors and fix weak behaviors. We can problem solve behaviors and we can use reward strategies to assess how ring ready our dog’s performance of the exercises and behaviors are. The seminar is in Catawba, SC in July. We also have a seminar in Virginia on the same topic scheduled for August.