Updated: Dec 10, 2019

How many times have you watched a video of handler and his dog performing an obedience routine and you think, “WOW! What a great team! That dog is so well trained and is going through the entire routine happy, engaged and without a reward!” You think, “How can you do that with your dog?”

We read so much about the importance of rewarding behavior that we want from our dog in training. Every time we read an article, Facebook post, watch a video, we are hit over the head with reward, reward, reward your dog! This becomes a huge part of our training plan and why not? We are seeing results, right? Our dog is doing the behaviors we ask for. Both you and your dog are happy! What is wrong with rewarding our dog every time they do what we ask?

Imagine this scenario:

· Training plan – check

· Bait bag of treats – check

· Eager dog – check

You begin training by telling your dog to sit, mark the behavior and reward with food. You then tell your dog to down, mark the behavior and reward again with food. For the next five minutes you repeat this training regimen with regular food rewards after each behavior. Maybe you have a toy reward dog and each time you tell your dog to sit or down you reward with the toy.

Now you want to get succession with the same behavior compliance and enthusiasm from your dog but without having the food or toy readily available – but your dog has checked out – he no longer has interest in performing the training exercises or even playing. What happened? He was just excited to do what you wanted when you had food or a toy immediately available and likely in sight. Frustration follows. In you and likely in your dog as well.

This is a very common challenge that people experience when training their dog. The problem is your dog is conditioned to respond only when a reward is given after each and every behavior the dog performs. Why? Because you created the dependency on the reward. The dog has learned to only perform if an instant reward follows.

So, what’s the answer? How do you get your dog to work, to perform, to do the exercises you want without rewarding all the time? The answer lies in pushing the envelope. In the above scenarios, there is no desire to or need for the dog to do more because you’ve never pushed them to do more. If the dog is going to get rewarded every single time and they know it, why try?

Now, this doesn’t mean to go out and start pushing and asking your dog to sit 10 times in a row without a reward or heel 20 paces without a reward. Pushing the envelope slowly and strategically will begin to teach the dog that he has to give a little more before getting rewarded.

One of favorite trainers and authors, Jean Donaldson, wrote a book called “Train Your Dog Like A Pro”. In this book she talks about this very issue. She calls it the “Push, Stick, Drop” method. Training is done in sets of five.

  • The dog gets 4 of 5 correct in a set, PUSH to the next level of difficulty.

  • It the dog gets 3 out of 5 correct, STICK where you are at, and repeat the same step again.

  • If the dog gets 2 or less correct drop to the previous, easier step.

When you are beginning to fade the lure or the reward, this method not only gives you a guideline of how much training to do but also allows for the slow but consistent progression needed to advance your dog’s training to the next step.

If we constantly reward for the same behaviors and never stretch the dog’s learning the dependency on the food or toy will never go away. We want our training to challenge and push the dog just enough to build that expectation that the reward is coming while also keeping the dog engaged and happy to play the game.

Of course, being mindful not to create too much frustration, push too much that the dog gives up or checks out is a fine balance. Knowing your dog and being acutely aware of not only the length of your training sessions but also how your dog is responding will go a long way in creating the dog who is happy, willing and desirous to train and play, even when a reward is not readily available.

When assessing why your dog may choose not to stay engaged with you and/or walk away from training, consider the following:

  • Did you move to fast to the next step? Did you go from food in your hand to no bait bag at all?

  • Did you take too big of a jump to the next step and your dog is confused? Break the training steps down to make sure your dog understands what you want – you may know what the final picture will look like, but your dog may need lots of baby steps to get there.

  • Did you stay at the “reward every time” phase too long? Dependency

  • Do you always reward after the same number of times your dog does a behavior? If you think your dog can’t count, guess again. If you reward after 3 times of a particular behavior your dog will learn and remember that.

  • Are you boring in your reward delivery? Change up when and how you deliver your reward. If you always reward with your right hand, reward with your left. If you always toss a ball as a reward for heeling, spin in front of your dog to face her and reward with the ball from your hand. Change it up – keep your dog guessing – build motivation and anticipation!

  • Did your training session go to long? Dogs need time to process information. Keeping training sessions short and ending on success ensures that your dog will retain that information for the next training session.

Your dog may seem a bit confused in the beginning so be prepared to take some steps backwards in your training as you are introducing a new concept. It won’t be long before your dog is responding and performing exercises in succession and you both are enjoying this new journey you are on together!

Happy Training!

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