Your Dog Agility Training Success Lies in the Reward

dog training rewardReward based training has become synonymous with dog agility for many reasons, but the most prevalent is because this is a game we are playing and a game should be fun! However, don’t think for a moment that reward based training will always come easy. There are some important guidelines you need to follow to be sure your rewards are effective in your training.

Before you can start using rewards for your training you have to find out what rewards motivate your dog. Food, toys, play and praise can all be incorporated into your training with a little research to find out which ones to use where. Never assume what your dog wants as far as treats, praise and play. Watch your dog and get to know how they play, what foods they LOVE and if they are “rough” or “soft” praise/play dogs. Remember, your dog has to be a motivated by your reward, motivated enough to repeat an action under distraction.

So how do you decide what motivator is best for your dog? Try them in low distraction areas first, if your dog becomes bored or quits trying for the reward you are offering, try a different one. Then try them under different distractions. If your dog is uninterested in food under distraction but goes crazy for a squeaky ball every time, then buy a case of those squeaky balls. You won’t know til you try, so get some of each and start your research.

  1. If possible, take your dog to the pet store and let your dog choose the toy. Try everything, rubber, plastic, rope, furry (unless you have kids who have stuffed animals), squeaky, crunchy, hard or soft, big or small (keeping in mind choking hazards). A big hit with many dogs is an empty plastic bottle. Just be sure to remove the lid and collar and never leave them unattended during play.
  2. Your praise MUST be sincere. You cannot lie to a dog, you have to sell them on you. It is all about your dog, so lose yourself in the moment and block out everything else. Keep in mind, praise is not for all dogs. If your dog shows avoidance to these gestures especially under stress, praise is not a desirable reward for your dog. Try food, play or toys. On the flip side, some dogs thrive on rough love, it is up to you to find what your dog enjoys.
  3. If you are endowed with a four legged vacuum cleaner, your job will be relatively easy when it comes to treats. For all other dogs you will need to do some testing. Smells are very important to dogs so sometimes it takes a nasty smelling treat to lock a dog’s attention. Kibble being the lowest on the totem pole, as distractions go up so does the value of the treat. Ham, cheese, chicken, soft dog food chubs, liver, tuna treats, boiled intestines… Don’t start with your tastiest treat for low distractions, learn to build value as distractions go up leaving the tastiest treats for the highest distractions.
  4. Find your dog’s favorite game. Watch your dog play with other dogs:  do they play rough or soft, do they like tug or keep away, then follow suit. Have rules for your games like on/off commands and keep the toy your dog loves to play with designated only for your training play times. Like other rewards, try playing in different surroundings and different distractions before using it as a reward so you aren’t caught unprepared if your dog needs a highre value reward in higher stress situations.

When you find the rewards that have value to your dog, the next important aspect is delivery of said reward. It is imperative your dog receive the reward as close to the correct behavior as possible and preferably while they are performing the desired behavior in order to get the clearest message to your dog. If your reward is late you will undoubtedly be rewarding a completely different behavior. For example, if you ask for a sit and you reward when the dog gets up, you are rewarding the stand. Don’t let anything distract you from the reward, your consistence is paramount to your dog’s success. Everything else can wait, EVERYTHING. You want consistency and focus from your dog? Then you have to give it to your dog first.

And be prepared with your rewards. It is ok to use different rewards in different environments so do your homework. If your dog becomes uninterested in play have some tasty treats and visa versa. Know how the reward is going to be delivered before starting the lesson. If you are going to treat, have treats ready before asking for the behavior. Will you need an assistant to hold the dog throw a toy. Knowing these details before starting your trainin will help insure you reward in a timely manner.