It can be very effective to train your dog using treats or toys, but only if you use them correctly. If you deliver them without care, use them as bribes, or inadvertently reward the opposite of what you really want, you likely won’t get the results you were hoping for. A few tips can help you get the most out of your reward-based dog training sessions.
Reward delivery is the focus of this blog entry. Before you begin a training session, plan how you are going to deliver rewards. Think about what position you want the dog’s body to tend toward, and maximize reward delivery to that end. This will greatly increase your dog’s understanding and speed progress. Here are a few examples:
Coming when called
A dog who comes when called, but who doesn’t come close enough for you to touch, may be impossible to catch when it really counts. To teach your dog to come in all the way, always deliver the treats or toy very close to your body. It may help to anchor your hands on your knees or thighs so you won’t be tempted to reach out toward the dog, thereby inadvertently rewarding him at arm’s length.
While you are at it, occasionally grasp your dog’s collar while you are rewarding him with the other hand; that way he’ll feel quite happy to be grabbed by the collar.
With a little dog, you can add some excitement by occasionally tossing the reward between your legs and out behind you. This way he gets accustomed to flying right up to you, never knowing when you might let him chase down the treat. Little dogs are sometime uncomfortable getting right up close to us, so this delivery will reward them for zooming right in. Just be sure you play this game only some of the time, rewarding close to your body most of the time. (See more Coming When Called tips.)
Notice when your dog is walking right by your side, because that body position in relation to yours is what you should reward. Deliver the treat by reaching it down along the side of your leg, parallel to the seam of your pants, then place the treat on the ground near the heel of your shoe. This treat delivery method results in the dog sticking by your side and prevents him cutting in front of you, zig zagging back and forth, lagging behind or forging out ahead. When you reinforce the behavior of walking by your side, it will increase in frequency, duration and intensity.
This reward delivery also sets the dog up for a successful repeat performance; while he is nibbling the treat off the ground, you can move off, so that he has to catch up to you. When he reaches your side, presto, he is in position for another reward. This enables you to rehearse success over and over.
Placing the treat on the ground also decreases the likelihood of your dog jumping up at you while you walk, since when your dog is eating the treat he’s being rewarded for having all four feet on the ground.
As soon as your dog reliably positions himself along side you as you walk, increase and randomize the number of steps you take before rewarding. Blend in real-life rewards for walking beside you, like a chance to sniff a tree or play with another dog, and within weeks you will no longer need to use treats as rewards.
How can you get your dog to stay put once you’ve gotten her to sit or lie down? Sometimes people attempt to reward a dog for staying by releasing the dog to them and then feeding the treat. But that’s likely not rewarding the stay position; it’s rewarding the movement toward you, and may well erode your stay training. The same applies to sit as well as to down, or any other stationary position. Deliver the treat in a way that encourages the dog to maintain position and rewards that position.
To reward a down, deliver the treat between the front paws, close to the dog’s chest and slightly tucking her chin. That will help her weight shift back into a nice solid down, elbows on the floor.
To reward sit, deliver the treat slightly above nose level to keep the dog’s weight back in her haunches.
Think about other stationary positions or movement you’d like to reward, and how treat delivery can aid you in your training.