The importance of a reward
The principles of learning are based around what is rewarding and what is not. If we behave in a certain way and something good happens, we remember that and will make the association between the behaviour and the reward. The same goes for a behaviour that results in something aversive. If we experience punishment in some way, then we are far less likely to do that behaviour again. It seems quite simple, really. And, although the principles of learning are more nuanced that this, rewards and punishments form the basis for just about everything we do.
Dogs learn in the same way. The main difference is that a large chunk of what is rewarding to a dog is controlled by us. Dogs never get the chance to grow up and become independent like we do. They rely on us to provide a rewarding life for them. This is such a huge responsibility for us. And I can only try to imagine how difficult that must be for dogs sometimes. Imagine having to rely on someone else your entire life for things that you want. Dogs do get the short straw when it comes to fairness!
As an animal behaviourist, my job and passion is to empower dogs to think for themselves. They are already controlled so much by us, so if we can allow them to have some sense of choice, it does wonders for their confidence, happiness and behaviour. The best way to do this is to find out what your dog loves. Once you know what they love, then you can offer this to them when they offer you behaviours that demonstrate good choices.
So, what does your dog love?
For my dogs, food is well at the top of the list. Chester, my Staffordshire bull terrier, will stand at the pantry and look over to me, then back at the pantry several times before I succumb to his polite request that dinner time is nigh. And, that’s the thing about our relationships with dogs. Respectful communication is key. A great relationship is all about cooperation and so if your dog politely communicates with you, then it is our responsibility to reciprocate.
Many people ask me what the most important behaviours are to reward. And I always answer with this: The Three C Words
Ask your dog what they love, and use that reward to get the best from your dog. Using treats and premium quality foods your dog should be rewarded for the C words. Examples of calm behaviours may include simply sitting beside you whilst you chat with a friend, or lying on their bed with a chew toy. Cooperative behaviours may include coming when called, looking up at you on a walk, or simply sitting at your side. And, controlled behaviours may include choosing NOT to jump up, mouth or bark when they really want to. To achieve these behaviours regularly, you must set your dog up for success. So don’t put them in an environment that is stressful or frustrating to them. Otherwise, you’ll never see any good behaviours to reward.
High value, nutritious and delicious dog treats are an essential tool to get the best out of your dog. And, what I love about using the right treats, is that it communicates to your dog that you understand them, that you respect them and that you see your relationship together as one based on trust and understanding. And that to me, is the best kind of relationship anyone could ask for.
– Laura V