In modern dog training, one of our most important fundamentals is all about reward! How you reward, when it happens, where, all of these variables come into play in successful and lasting training. Training that uses no rewards is a thing of the past, and for good reason.
What is a reward?
Rewards are simply something that our dog likes, but that we’re also able to control our dog’s access to. If your dog can get it without going through you, it’s not a good reward! Additionally rewards should not be confused with bribes. Bribery doesn’t work for consistent training, and is actually one of the most common mistakes owners make when using rewards. Knowing how to use rewards to your advantage, and to your dog’s advantage is how to create change and habit that sticks!
Why are rewards important?
Our lives are filled with rewards and consequences to our actions, just like our dog’s lives are. We are paid for our work, we are rewarded for our choices, we are constantly getting feedback and always striving for that next reward. Whether that’s working hard for a promotion, wanting to spend time with family because of the joy it brings, or avoiding doing the “wrong” thing because of the unwanted consequences that would follow, we are propelled through the world because of reward. Even something as simple as wanting your neighbor to be more quiet, your action to bang on the wall, or call out to them, is powered by the chance of them rewarding your effort by being quiet.
I can think of no actions that any creature, large or small, makes that is not in some way tied to reward. Even when we take a look at humans or dogs doing things that we don’t like or don’t agree with, they are driven by reward and consequence.
What does this actually mean?
This means that we can influence habits and change behavior by changing the rewards and consequences. Thus we can train our dogs or quite frankly any other animal. We as humans are also just as susceptible to rewards influencing how we will act at any given time. It’s how nature works and totally ingrained in most all animals. The additional bonus is that we absolutely don’t need to use force, fear, pain, or punishment to try change behavior. A paycheck gets better results than threats of a beating.
Although this concept is quite simple, there is a lot of nuance involved. For example, a common problem that confuses people with reward based training is how you could teach a barking dog to be quiet with rewards. Or how to teach a dog to manage an aggressive response. Both of these behaviors can be frustrating to people and commonly the first response is just to try to get the dog to stop. Our actions are fueled by the prospect of our dog being quiet, or stopping their aggressive response. Generally frustration can get the better of people, and if our dog temporarily stops the thing we wanted them to, we’ve just been rewarded for Our behavior. It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of punishing the dog and trying to micromanage them, and let’s face it, if it were working you wouldn’t have to repeat the same pattern like a broken record!
These skills are fairly simple to pick up, and take just a little bit of patience to begin to learn to apply. The results that we get with reward based training leads to happy and confident dogs who have deeper bonds with their owners. They are eager to please, and take joy in doing so. You yourself can also rest easy knowing that your dog isn’t acting out of fear of punishment, and that your dog trusts you. And of course because of the heights you can reach with training, your bond with your dog and the relationship they have with you can be stronger than ever.
Challenges with using rewards
The biggest obstacle that we face with reward based training is getting started! It can be a big step for many, especially if doing so feels unnatural (like any new skill does). Often, having to learn a completely new skill is one that people sort of forget the feel of. After all, for some of us the last time we did this was as kids! So it can be a bit uncomfortable and just feels different.
Taking the time to learn how to train this way is well worth the time invested, as your skills and knowledge about how to use rewards will be able to be used with any pet you have. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, fish, reptiles, all can be trained with the same principles, which as a trainer I think is pretty neat, not to mention useful!
Want to take the first steps with your dog?
You deserve a happy and harmonious life with your dog. It’s ok to not know how to train them or improve on their unwanted habits, no one gave you a user guide. Let’s get your journey started and take you closer to having the a great companion!