Do you know what your dog’s motivators are? If you train using positive reinforcement or reward-based methods, you need to know! So what does reward-based or positive reinforcement training mean? In a nutshell, it means we are proactive in teaching our dogs what TO do, and we reward them for making the “right” or a good choice. However, the trick sometimes comes in what we are using as reinforcement or rewards. If you’re not being successful, it’s often not the method that’s failing but rather the implementation of it. If we’re offering our dog a “reward” that the dog does not find rewarding, we really aren’t using reward-based training after all!
I am sometimes surprised when people really don’t know their dogs well enough to know what their dogs find truly rewarding. If I asked you right now to list ten things that your dog finds rewarding, could you do it? Go ahead, I’ll wait. . .
Many people have a very difficult time with this exercise. Many people tend to think of treats or food items when we talk about rewards, but that’s only one category of rewards. And if your dog does not get as excited about food as others dog, coming up with alternatives might be a challenge. Many others immediately say “praise” or “petting” is rewarding to their dogs. While that is true in SOME cases and in SOME circumstances, it’s not nearly as high on the list of rewards for dogs as people would like to think. Sure, my dogs love attention and petting. . . at certain times. But there are other times when attention and petting from me is most certainly NOT a reward.
That’s the tricky thing about motivators or rewards. What can be a reward in certain circumstances is not always a reward. If you take your dog to the dog park and he loves loves loves to play with the other dogs, is petting and attention from you rewarding to him in that situation? In most cases, it most certainly is not! So even something that is a motivator at one time, might not be at another time.
People also tend to think of rewards as things they can pull out of their pockets, such as treats or toys. But there is whole other realm of rewards that you can’t put in your pocket and carry around. In the example above, playing with other dogs at the dog park (or other settings) can be a highly valuable reward. Many people don’t realize it or think of it though when I ask them to list what is rewarding to their dogs.
If you have a copy of my Juvenile Delinquent Dogs book , you will find a long list of motivators or rewards in Appendix B. See how many you can come up with for your dog. How long is your list? Were you able to name ten? How about twenty or thirty?
If you have a very short list of motivators or rewards for your dog, I challenge you to lengthen that list. It will make you a better trainer!