Using Predictable Rewards to Train Your Dog

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What does 'learn to earn' mean?

Over the years, a number of useful catchphrases have been used to describe the importance of managing a dog’s environment, behaviors, and skills to create success. One of the best ways to do this is by understanding the power of rewards in how a dog learns and makes choices.

To begin, learn what your dog enjoys. Common examples include food treats, meals, attention/praise, and interactive play with toys. Puppies and dogs can easily learn that their choices about which behaviors to perform in certain situations will predictably lead to something they love—a reward. By rewarding the desired choices, you can encourage your dog to perform those wanted behaviors more and more frequently in the future. Conversely, if your dog performs unwanted behaviors and gains access to a reward, she will repeat those same behaviors in the future as well.

"By rewarding the desired choices, you can encourage your dog to perform those wanted behaviors more and more frequently in the future."

Take the example of a dog who likes attention and pets but who continues to jump up when greeting people. Why does this behavior continue? Somehow, the behavior results in a reward from the dog’s point of view. What do you do when your dog rushes up to you and jumps up? Chances are that you gently use your hand to push your dog onto the ground, all the while talking to your dog as you say, “Hello,” and verbally reminding her to stay on the ground.

If we consider these interactions from the dog’s point of view, your dog jumped up yet nevertheless gained a chance to interact with you—your dog received some touching and verbal attention. She is likely to repeat this behavior sequence in the future; that is, jumping up will continue to be part of a greeting.

The good news is that there are options to reduce your dog being coincidentally rewarded for jumping. One option is to quietly step to the side or slightly turn to avoid being jumped. Then, once your dog is on the ground again, you can address and pet her. Another option is to anticipate the jump and, as you see your dog approaching, promptly bend down to pet and speak to her before she can jump. If you have trained your dog to sit on cue, you can be prepared with a treat in hand when she rushes over. As your dog approaches, show the treat as you ask her to sit. Once she sits, give her the treat and then pet and praise her. With each of these options, your dog receives the reward—petting and verbal acknowledgment—for remaining on the ground. This is how your dog learns to earn—your dog can learn that when she approaches you and sits, she earns a treat, pets, and praise. Over time, if you are consistent, your dog will always sit when she wants a greeting.

To train your dog to behave the way you prefer, it is important to be consistent and predictable during all interactions. Rewards, even when they are accidental, will encourage a dog to repeat whatever she was doing immediately before she received the reward. Consistently set your dog up for success whenever possible. Keep the difficulty level reasonable—do not ask for something too challenging until she is ready. Predictably reward the behaviors that you want.

What does 'cue-response-reward' mean?

The cue-response-reward is similar to ‘learn to earn’ and refers to interactions in which dogs gain rewards for following learned cues. Teaching dogs the structure of cue–response–reward can help them become more aware of how their choices impact their access to rewards. By training cues for desired behaviors, you increase your dog’s motivation to do those behaviors and may reduce the chances that less desirable behaviors will be offered.

Of course, it is important to avoid unintentionally rewarding any undesired behaviors. For example, if you let your dog outside while she is jumping, barking, or scratching the door, those behaviors are being rewarded and will continue. Instead, you can use the cue-response-reward method. Teach the CUE ‘sit’, your dog will RESPOND by sitting, then deliver the REWARD of opening the door. Similarly, if your dog wants attention and paws or barks at you, instead of delivering the reward (attention) for these behaviors, you can use the cue ‘sit’ and reward her for sitting.

"...it is important to avoid unintentionally rewarding any undesired behaviors."

If your dog is showing signs of fear, phobia, aggression, or other unwanted behaviors that are problematic, seek professional guidance. Help is available, and the earlier the intervention, the more likely a positive outcome will be.

Can training my dog to respond to cues correct behavior problems?

Teaching a variety of cues to your dog, such as ‘sit’, ‘down’, or ‘go to bed’, can provide structure and predictability within the relationship. Training skills can improve communication with your dog and enhance your relationship. First, use positive reinforcement to teach these behaviors in neutral contexts so that your dog can easily learn. Then, once the skills are learned, you can begin to use them to manage problematic behaviors. Simply teaching skills, such as ‘sit’, ‘down’, or ‘come’, will not correct or reverse fears, phobias, aggression, or other problematic behaviors—the specific skills will need to be carefully introduced in the problematic contexts. In some cases, this may require professional guidance.

Why is predictability important?

Predictability can build trust and confidence. Providing cues to guide your dog helps her learn about your expectations and, eventually, she can offer desirable trained behaviors before you need to ask for them. For example, if you consistently use the cue ’sit’ before opening the door to let your dog outside to play in the yard, your dog will learn that sitting by the door predictably leads to the reward of outside play. Over time, when you invite your dog to go play in the yard, she will begin to spontaneously sit by the door, correctly predicting that the behavior is necessary before the yard will become available.

When you provide a reward in response to a desired behavior, your dog also learns that her choices control outcomes. Having choice and predictability helps dogs feel more relaxed and comfortable.

"Having choice and predictability helps dogs feel more relaxed and comfortable."

What rewards can be used for training sessions?

Rewards are anything your dog likes that you can deliver quickly. The easiest rewards to use are treats, toys, attention, praise, and petting. Your dog needs to like something for it to be considered a reward. In most cases, food and toys are primary reinforcers, meaning that they have high value in and of themselves. Verbal praise and pets are considered secondary level rewards in that they are not valuable on their own but gain value through learning—your dog learns that hearing ‘good dog’ means a treat will probably follow soon and/or that you are pleased. Many dogs do not like to be petted and, if this is the case, petting can deter a behavior. Monitor your dog’s response to the rewards you offer, and make sure she actually likes them before using them as rewards!

Rewarding with food is usually the easiest. It is relatively simple to give treats when your dog does what you like and to withhold a treat if she does not. Toys can also be valuable tools for training, especially when training advanced skills, though there may be some foundation toy training needed. For instance, dogs should be able to engage with the toy and then release it when asked.

Using rewards for training and to shape wanted behavior does not mean you will withhold these things at all other times. Dogs need exercise, play opportunities, appropriate nutrition, and time to explore to be happy and healthy. Restricting a dog’s access to their basic needs in the name of training is not appropriate. Rather, make sure that when you choose to give access to rewards, your dog is doing the behaviors you want. Do not starve your dog to make her love treats or remove all toys except when you are training. Provide an enriched environment and add in treats and structured play with toys to enhance training opportunities.

How can I give food and treats without causing my dog to gain weight?

Determine how much food your dog needs (how many calories per day) based on her life stage, level of exercise, and body condition. Ask your veterinarian for help with this if you are not sure. Calculate training treats into the calorie ‘budget’ for the day. This may mean slightly reducing the amount of food given in meals to allow plenty of opportunity for training. For dogs who love their regular diet, using a part of each meal as food rewards during the day’s training is another way to manage calories while using food as a training reward. Consider feeding meals from an enrichment toy, snuffle mat, or other slow-feeding devices to lengthen meal periods, provide mental stimulation, and increase the feeling of fullness after meals.

What if my dog refuses to obey me?

The idea that dogs should obey any command from a human just for the sake of it is somewhat outdated. Responding to cues is dependent upon the dog’s level of understanding, the environment, the level of foundation training provided, the rewards used, and many other factors.

"The idea that dogs should obey any command from a human just for the sake of it is somewhat outdated."

Avoid confronting or forcing your dog to comply with you. Using force, yelling, striking, restraining, or pushing a dog to the ground are all associated with increased aggression in dogs. It is not necessary to force or assert control over dogs.

If the situation is unsafe for you or your dog, immediately stop what you are doing and move to a safe location and situation. Consider why your dog might not be able to respond to the cues you have given. Here are some possibilities:

  • The dog is distracted
  • The dog is confused
  • The dog does not understand how to respond to the cue in the current location or environment 
  • The dog does not understand how to respond to the cue on this surface
  • There is a competing motivation (something else has the dog’s attention)
  • The dog is too tired, emotionally or mentally fatigued, or is over-excited
  • The dog is experiencing or anticipating pain

We can teach dogs to control the outcomes of their behavior by providing desirable rewards for desirable behaviors and withholding or removing rewards for undesirable behaviors. Providing a foundation understanding of the expected behaviors and associated cues, working in an environment where your dog can be successful, and only increasing the level of difficulty as your dog’s skills improve, are the best ways to achieve the results you want.

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