Reward Delivery for Rewarding Results

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.)

Leash manners

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.

Holding still

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.

Fido at the Farmer’s Market

It’s that time of year again when area farmer’s markets kick into high gear. Strawberries, lettuce, kale and asparagus are all making an appearance, along with more vendors, more customers, more kids of all ages, and, yes, more dogs.  Some markets gladly welcome dogs; the Durham Farmer’s Market even had a vendor in the past that sold dog biscuits. When I’m finished with my shopping I love to sit in the shade and watch from afar as the people and their dogs enjoy themselves. I also get to observe how they handle the many situations that come up. I admit, I sometimes have to turn away as though a scary scene may be unfolding (people do not always keep their eyes on their dogs), especially whendoglettuce parents let their children run about without supervising them. But mostly it’s a real treat to see everyone blending in and enjoying themselves. One of my favorite regulars to see at the Durham Farmer’s Market is a little dog who rides in the basket of his owner’s bicycle. The dog doesn’t say a peep, seems to enjoy looking around, and no one even notices him. Very cute.

Should you bring your dog?

You should bring your dog only if you can:

  • Supervise him and monitor his interactions with people and other dogs at all times. It is not ok to tie your dog to a tree or fence post unattended. That exposes you to liability (think: kids running around without their parents watching), exposes your dog to things you may not want (interactions, harassment, being fed things, and being untied or stolen), and makes dog owners as a group look irresponsible (thereby making it harder for you and other dog lovers to continue enjoying their dogs in public).
  • Be able to coordinate your money, your shopping bags, and your leash with little difficulty.
  • Know exactly how to coach kids who approach and hope to pet your dog. This goes for kids whose parents are standing right there. Many parents will tell you the information sometimes sinks in better when a friendly stranger with a cute dog is doing the explaining. (As a nice bonus for everyone, carry treats for the kids to feed your dog.)
  • Remember to bring clean up bags to deal with any mess your dog makes.
  • Be reasonably certain that your dog will not be aggressive toward other people or dogs (if your dog has a history of either, is uncomfortable being reached for, or doesn’t like commotion, leave him at home).
  • Be sure that the outside temperature won’t exceed 70 if your plan is to leave him in the car while you shop (unrolled windows and parking in the shade don’t count; it is illegal and animal control will confiscate your dog…they take it seriously because hot cars and dogs—who cannot sweat to keep themselves cool—are a bad combination and brain damage can result in just a few minutes).
  • Use a four-foot leash (not a 6 foot leash, not an extendable leash) and keep him close to you; never let him wander up to people and sniff them or their food items.

Remember that some people are very afraid of or just plain dislike dogs, so be respectful and discrete and keep your dog close to you. If your dog doesn’t enjoy this sort of thing, be sure you’ve not making him go to the farmer’s market just because you like the idea. Find some other outdoor activity you both can enjoy.

Use a nearby grassy area if you and someone else want your dogs to meet. In the aisle or between vendors are not optimal spots for nose-to-nose introductions.

Which markets allow dogs?

Raleigh, Carborro, Southern Village: dogs not allowed

Pittsboro, Hillsborough, Moore Square: no policy stated on-line

Durham: dogs are allowed, please see their website for rules

Not sure how your dog will behave?

Here are a few tips for taking your dog to the farmer’s market. If you have a new dog, a puppy, or a dog you’ve never taken to the market before, avoid going at the busiest time (8:00-10:00) or when you have a lot of shopping you need to accomplish. Exercise your dog before you go so he will be calmer, and make sure he’s relieved himself beforehand as well.

The first couple of times you bring your dog arrive a bit later so there won’t be as many people and other dogs to contend with. Stay on the periphery of the action and gauge your dog’s responses. He or she should look relaxed and maybe a bit curious. Make brief trips into the crowd, praising your dog for staying with you.

Make a note of what training you need to brush up on in order to have a more successful visit next time (helpful skills include leave it, watch me, loose leash manners, greeting people politely, and sit-stay). Gradually start going at busier times until your dog is acclimated to the environment and can easily cope with the tents, the musicians, the bustling crowd, other dogs, and last but not least, the temptations of the dog biscuit vendor.