Change Rewards for Better Dog Obedience
The "Why" behind Dog Training Rewards
OK, yes I am kind of a dog training nerd. I will tell you why! Because, unlike a lot trainers out there, I am intrigued with the "why" behind great dog training lessons and not just the "how." My clients usually want to know why varying rewards will increase their dog's performance in response to the command and I get asked one question a lot while teaching canine obedience: "Why are you doing that?" My response is usually, "Glad you asked, I was going to explain anyway!"
Understand Reward Systems to Get Better Dog Behavior
It has been observed and studied in animals from mice to chimps and dogs that varying rewards will increase or decrease performance. For instance, if a mouse is making its way through a maze to get a piece of food, they will move at a specific pace if the reward never changes (Note: the hunger of the mouse is a controlled variable). Now, if you put piece of cheese at the end of the maze and it finds cheese very rewarding, the mouse will dramatically increase its speed the next time around. Makes sense, right? Well, here is where things get interesting. The mouse that is used to getting kibble at the end of the maze but finds cheese will run faster than a mouse who always gets cheese. Getting a better response by using a reward of higher value is called positive behavioral contrast. On the other hand, if you use a less desirable reward when they are accustomed to getting something better, you get a pretty mediocre or slower response. This is negative behavioral contrast.
Changing Rewards Can Improve your Dog's Obedience
By varying the rewards you give your dog, you can use behavior contrast to dramatically improve your dog's behavior. When rewarding behavior, the dog will associate doing something that is not particularly enjoyable with something that is. From the dog's point of view, what used to be a boring loose leash walk is now enjoyable because it has been shaped and paired with rewards. Also, when you pair a reward with the simple phrase, “Good dog,” you will establish a strong positive meaning for your dog. Eventually, saying, "Good dog" with be extremely rewarding in and of itself, allowing you to phase out food rewards. If Pavlov can have a dog drool at the sound of a bell, you can make your dog feel great just by saying, "Good dog!"