Is the best reward for a dog’s good behavior a tidbit? A pat? A kiss on top of his head? A sincere, “Good dog”? A sigh? Going out for a hike with you? The chance to sleep in your bed? The fun of doing something whether it pleases you or not? Yes.
If this all seems confusing, if you’d prefer one definitive answer, well, there is none. Not on this blog. Not in real life. Dogs are complex, intuitive, thinking beings and they will all happily accept the rewards you offer and also invent and intuit some of their own. So keep some things in mind as you work with and live with and love your dog.
Your dog’s mother gave him the absolutely most powerful rewards any dog was ever given. Her teaching, much of it aimed at his safety, was precise, thoughtful, effective and humane and was almost always a done deal in one shot. Your dog’s mother never gave or withheld food as a learning tool. Instead, she rewarded him with a lick, a sound, her pleasure. Translating the lick to a pat, these tools are available for teachers of another species to use. Still, tidbits have a use – in animating a dog during trick training, to encourage a dog who is fearful out of doors, for teaching a dog to play catch and other games. For the basics, I prefer to work as my dog’s mother did, with posture, voice, changes in breathing patterns, petting. This keeps my dog’s focus on our relationship rather than on a disposable reward anyone could give her.
If your dog is doing something you don’t want her to do, say, barking on and on at the door, and you choose to extinguish that behavior by ignoring it, as is sometimes advised, please keep in mind that some of the behaviors we find annoying dogs find pleasurable. And when that’s true, when the behavior you dislike is self rewarding, you can ignore it until the cows come home without extinguishing it. Better to offer a replacement behavior and reinforce that with praise, a favorite game, a pat on the head. Allowing behavior approves of behavior – so if you want to stop a bad habit, replace it with a good one.
Training in a way that leans on the bond you and your dog form with each other increases that bond. So you can not only reward your dog with a long hike, you can train your dog on a long hike. What better way to teach than to integrate the work with your daily life – practice the sit when ready to put down the food bowl, practice on, over, under, off using the benches in your local park. Teach your dog to be attentive by signaling him with a hand or a nod of your head which way you wish to go when there’s a fork in the road. Offer a great variety of venues for your adventures together and to make sure your dog will pay attention when you need him to, practice what he knows and teach new things in all those venues.
A reward is anything your dog enjoys – a word to the wise: even barking at the door. By watching your dog and seeing what animates her, what pleases her, what she understands, and what keeps her mind on the job at hand, you can add variety not only to your training venues but to your rewards, telling her “Good dog,” when she’s some distance away, petting when she is close by, sighing with pleasure when she’s really close.