I like to call what we do Reward Based Dog Training. There are lots of terms on the internet for it (positive, modern, force free) but I think reward based training helps us to think about the most important face of dog training:
Dogs do what works for dogs!
If you see things through your dog’s eyes you can’t go wrong!
Introduction to Reward Based Training
Reward based dog training is about motivating your dog to want to work for you. Science shows us that dogs are much more likely to learn and perform wanted behaviours when they are taught with reward-based methods instead of punishment. Training this way required a bit of a change in your own mind-set but pays dividends in a happy, polite dog and a closer relationship.
Basics of Reward Based Dog Training
‘Lure or cue action – mark it – reward it’
Action – Shaping, luring, catching, cueing
This is what you want your dog to do. Be clear in your own mind to avoid confusion. We don’t use force or pressure to obtain the behaviour, but at first we usually a lure (food usually) to put the dog in the right position. When you are more experienced with timing and understand the principles of reward based training you can shape or capture the behaviour as well. Notice that we don’t use a verbal ‘cue’ until the dog knows what we want from a physical cue. This is because dogs don’t speak English. Be clear what behaviour you want.
Marker- Clicker or marker word?
A marker is what tells your dog that this is the behaviour that we want. It acts like a camera taking a picture, a snapshot that lets your dog know that he has done the right thing. The marker needs to be distinct, short, and easy to remember. Clickers are great for this because they are designed to be used in this way, however, I like to have a marker word – I use ‘Yes!’ – Because I don’t always have my clicker on me. A marker tells your dog ‘This is what I want!’
Reward – Motivate your dog!
It’s really important to find out what motivates your dog. The strength of these rewards will vary due to breed, temperament and character. You know your dog best! There are four main rewards we use when training:
1. FOOD: This is the easiest to use for you and usually the most rewarding for your dog. You can vary the strength of the reward with the type and size of food (one piece of dry kibble – low motivation, large piece of chicken – high motivation). If your dog is food motivated he is much easier to train!
2. TOYS: Some dogs, especially working dogs like spaniels, love their toys. You can use favourite toys or games of tug as motivation – however it is more difficult for humans to learn how to deliver this reward effectively. I like to use toys when the dog has already learnt the basics.
3. PRAISE: Dogs love verbal praise and physical affection. However, they don’t love it as much as we might wish! I tend to use these things ‘for free’ because I believe that they belong more in our relationship outside of training, but I still give lots of praise when my dog has done well. I also use praise when the behaviour is well established and the environment is low distraction.
4. STUFF THE DOG WANTS TO DO: This is known as ‘environmental rewards’ and includes things like moving forward when the dog has a loose lead, opening the door to go for a walk when the dog is calm and ready etc. I use these a lot with basic manners, but again, I think that they are best used when the handler is more advanced and has good timing and judgement.
A reward makes your dog want to repeat the behaviour
When to add a cue
It is really hard for handlers to learn when to add the cue (myself included). It is better to have behaviour and then add a verbal cue (or command) because dogs learn body language far easier than words. Once you have rewarded the behaviour 5 times in a row, then you can add your verbal cue. Say your cue (‘sit’) ONCE as you use your physical cue then click and reward. Saying the word without the dog doing the action just makes your dog ignore you because he thinks you are talking nonsense! Dogs don’t speak English!
Free downloads by Ian Dunbar at https://www.dogstardaily.com/free-downloads
I like his books on puppies, but take the pace at which he does things with a grain of salt – i.e. he suggests each puppy meets a huge number of people and other dogs very quickly. I think this is usually too fast for the dog – learn to read your own pups body language and use them to guide you.
Victoria Sitwell has a great website with lots of articles and videos: https://positively.com/
Nando Brown does good videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/InTheDoghouseDTC
Easy and helpful training exercises
Want to get your dogs attention fast? A positive interruptor is what you need! This is super easy to train. When your dog is close to you and looking at you, shout ‘Squirrels’ (or Party! Or anything you don’t say much) and throw a handful of food on the ground by your feet. Yes I mean a handful. Repeat a few times. Move further away, repeat. Start randomly doing this around the house, on walks, anywhere. Always keep the reward value high, and be very careful not to overuse the word. This is an emergency break and you want to make sure it works!
Dog unsettled? Nervous in a new environment? You want to listen and your dog doesn’t have settle yet? Scatter some food on the ground. Dogs finding sniffing comforting, and this also gives him something to think about instead of the scary thing.
This is not a down but when you want your dog to chill out by your side. Sit on chair (or sofa, you can train this while watching tv!) Ask dog to down by your feet. Look away from the dog (important!). When the dog sighs, or puts his head down, drop a treat. After a second (or a few seconds depending how young/ energetic the dog is), say your marker word and drop a treat by his paws. Repeat look away for a second, drop a treat. Increase to looking away for two seconds, then five, then ten, then fifteen, then thirty, then a minute then 2 minutes…. You get the idea. Add the cue ‘settle’ when you have him relaxing for 15 seconds.
This is a fun focus game, that you can use when you need your dog to stand still, to shape another behaviour, or as a calming check in with your dog. Hold your hand flat, palm facing the side, and put a treat in between two fingers. When your dog’s nose touches your palm say your marker word and let him eat the reward. Repeat a few times. Rub the treat on your hand instead of holding it. The dog will put his nose on your hand. Mark and reward. You can make a game of you putting your hand out and you dog needs to put his nose on it. Add a cue ‘Touch!’ when he understands.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I always have to feed him?
Food is the most convenient motivator. Always keep up a high reward schedule at first, when learning new things or when working in a high distraction environment. You can then start varying the reward, ie with praise or toys instead, but only when the dog knows the cue well. You may need to ‘refresh’ every now and then with food to keep the dog motivated.
What if I don’t have food on me?
I would at first – for example, I like to cook a lot of chicken, then cut it very small and put in individual size bags and in the freezer. I take out a bag when I need it. However, as the dog becomes more trained you don’t always have to carry food (although I always do in high distraction environments).
Will he get fat?
Make sure to take into account the training rewards as part of your dog’s daily diet. Use things like peas or apples (but not the pips!) as part of your rewards if your dog likes them. I also avoid commercial treats because they are usually high in fat, and too big to be used properly.
Shouldn’t he want to obey me anyway?
Dogs haven’t read the books on dominance hierarchy. Scientifically no modern studies have agreed with the dominance model. Dogs do what’s good for dogs – they will behave if it makes sense for them.
Unwanted behaviour – saying NO!
One big shift with this way of training is giving up the idea of punishment. Does punishment work to curb unwanted behaviour? Yes, but…. Punishment only works if the dog associates the punishment with the exact behaviour you want him to stop doing. That means that you have to have amazing timing to get it right. Frankly, if you are asking me for help, you don’t have good enough timing. There are also other problems with punishment. It can cause unwanted side effects – the dog barks as you enter the house, you punish the dog, the dog associates the punishment not with barking, but with you entering the house… well done you have made your dog more likely to bark at you because he associates seeing you with pain or fear. It has been found that aggression in dogs can increase when they are routinely training with force. Finally it will affect you and your dog’s relationship. So what do you do instead? Reward the behaviour you want or teach the dog what you want to do instead. If you want to understand the science, look for Karyn Prior’s books or The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson.