Are Your Verbal Rewards Meaningful?

Imagine you are working with your dog not to pull to go see another person.

Your dog begins to pull, you excitedly say your dog's name and then begin to walk backwards. Your dog is backing up with you but still facing the person.

You then either say your dog's name again or verbally praise him for walking backwards with you. Then when there is some distance created, your dog finally turns to look at you and you verbally reward your dog. Then, as your dog comes to you, you verbally reward again.

What exactly has occurred during this whole scenario, what was being rewarded, and how effective was each verbal reward. . . to your dog.

When we give a lot of verbal rewards to our dogs for either no apparent reason or for reasons that may confuse our dogs as to what behavior we actually want, we can diminish the importance of that reward and potentially reinforce a behavior we don't want.

In the above scenario, while the dog was pulling, his name was excitedly being called out but he was not responding in an appropriate way. He continued to be focused on the person he wanted to get to instead of turning to engage with his owner. But, he was rewarded for ignoring his owner, being forced to move backwards (and getting verbally rewarded) and then again was rewarded when he finally decided to check in.

If we do this regularly with our dogs, our verbal rewards lose their meaning and effect. If we praise our dog for everything they do - good and bad choices - or for just being cute - the verbal reward loses its value and meaning.

So what can we do to help increase the value of our verbal rewards?

Keep your praise to yourself until earned. If you are always talking to and praising your dog, regardless of what they are doing - good or not - our voice becomes background noise. If you are quiet while the dog is thinking and learning and then use your verbal reward when the desired behavior occurs, or the effort for a new behavior is made, then your verbal reward will be more valuable!

The inflection in our voice is important as well. If we are always upbeat and excited in our verbal praise or when we communicate with our dog, we can diminish the meaning of a neutral or accountable tone. You want your tone to reflect your intention - what are you trying to convey to the dog at that moment?

Also, watch how your dog responds to your voice and the verbal praise. Does your dog get overly stimulated when you start talking to your dog or verbally praise her? You may need to tone it down a bit if she is having trouble staying focused and is losing her mind when you praise.

Or, does your dog not respond much at all when you get excited and praise your dog? You may have diminished the importance of the reward by over rewarding and talking too much at inappropriate times (undesired behaviors or just talking too much) and now your voice doesn't have the meaning you want it to.

Rewards are given when the dog has either made an effort when learning a new behavior or when a desired behavior that a dog knows is done. When we talk to and verbally reward our dogs too much and/or at the wrong time, we can decrease the value of our voice and our rewards.

Time your rewards when your dog is doing the behavior you desire.

Teach your dog that training is fun and that your voice is valuable!

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