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Praise as Reward

Training dogs to respond to rewards, we first have to work out what counts as reward to our dogs. When we reward them appropriately, they will put in the effort to earn those rewards.

So, what counts as rewards? With puppies, the simplest way to reward them is through food. Puppies are always hungry and food is a great currency to use when dealing with puppies and when you are requiring an exchange of behaviour for a reward that means a lot to them - food! It satisfies their hunger and it makes them feel safe!

Appropriate food needs to be considered here as NOT ALL FOOD is considered reward. It's like you asking your child to tidy his/her room. Would you say you'll give them a piece of carrot or a piece of chocolate when they finish tidying their room? Yep, I thought so!

Same with dogs, if you know what are the foods that really gets them excited, USE THOSE!

"But, Kirsten, we don't always carry food with us all the time and we don't really want to be thinking about carrying dog food in our pockets when it is wet or when we are taking the dogs to a lovely posh pub."

I hear you! I don't always have dog treats/food on me all the time either.

As much as I try to have my training pouch on me whenever I have my dogs with me (it is a really good investment - get one if you really want to cement your dog's learning and development!), I sometimes forget to top up my treats or I sometimes just don't want to be wearing a training pouch into a nice posh pub, looking like a dog trainer.

Sometimes, I just want to be a regular person with her dog and enjoying things that we both like to do!

So, this is where the topic of this article comes in: Using praise as reward.

In the doggy's world though, words are just that - words, sounds coming from our mouths - sometimes they mean something but a lot of the time, nothing in their world changes despite the many words that come out of our mouths.

So, verbal communication as a 'currency' for dog training has to be set up and taught to your dog. They don't understand that "Good dog" means "Oh, I've done well here!" UNLESS you show them that.

So, praise them sincerely and lavishly *when* they have done the required behaviour and you want to reward them with their food treat to mark the correct behaviour for them. It's like "GOOD DOG!" comes out of your mouth and heart as your hand presents the food.

Over time, that sensation of reward gets associated with the words and you can then start to practice using just the words to reward your dog.

Here is an example with recall:

You are teaching your dog recall and he is learning that coming back means he'll get a piece of food. He is coming back reliably and every time he does so, you present him a piece of food - 100% of the time.

To start making the verbal praise associated as reward, use whatever praise you want to use in a tone that suggests approval and affection (be sincere!) and start to withdraw the food reward 20% of the time. So, 1 in every 5 successful recalls gets only a verbal "Good boy!". The rest are still rewarded as normal with food + praise.

With more practice, increase the number of verbal praise rewards to 1 in 4, to 1 in 3.

This randomness will teach your dog two things:

  1. Praise feels great and I want to feel great, so I will keep doing that behaviour.

  2. The food doesn't appear every single time so I had better just go back every single time, just in case I missed one where mum is going to give me food.

As your puppy gets older, or as time passes, your dog will start to associate the words "Good boy" with the feelings of connection, approval, belonging and self-esteem. These are all important to our dogs' social and emotional well-beings.

So, don't think that food is the only reward when it comes to reinforcing behaviours! Your praise and approval is something that can be powerful too! Dogs are highly intelligent and highly connected to their families; when we can harness their desire to be successful in both physical abilities and in their social standings, we can use a variety of positive training approaches to help them become the best dogs in the world!

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