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The Heart of Communicating with Your Dog 1: Understanding Reinforcement and Rewards

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Hi friends,

As busy dog owners, it's essential that we learn to communicate clearly and efficiently with our dogs. A big part of that is understanding the difference between positive reinforcement and rewards, and using them selectively when training our doggos. Both positive reinforcement and rewards should play a role in communicating with our dogs and encouraging the right behaviours at the right times.

So let's take a look at:

  • What is positive reinforcement and what is a reward?

  • What job they should be doing?

  • And how we can use both of them effectively?

a white dog is patted
Jaffa getting a pat

Positive Reinforcement:

Anything that encourages correct actions to continue

Positive reinforcement is all about acknowledging and encouraging the correct actions that our dogs are displaying. It should involve conveying to our dogs that they are currently doing something right and that they should continue with that behaviour. This is usually achieved through simple words such as saying "good boy" or "good girl" in a calm, approving tone or giving them a gentle pat. However, for some dogs, ANY attention is enough to motivate them to keep doing what they are doing when what they are doing feels good to them.

For example, if your dog jumps up on you when you get home, and you push him down, that attention might be enough to keep him jumping up each time you get home.

Or perhaps your dog is barking at something and sees you look at him, that might be all he needs to know that the behaviour is good, keep it up!

But on the other hand, if you are choosing to pat, praise, acknowledge, touch etc when they are calm, quiet, or behaving in a beautiful way, then your dog is more likely to want to keep that behaviour going.

The key here is to understand that positive reinforcement isn’t always as obvious as you might think, and it doesn't signify that a task is complete. On the contrary, it's a way of motivating our dogs to keep up the good work. When we say, "Good boy/girl" or give a pat, it should be interpreted by our dogs as "Keep going!" or "You're on the right track!"

The Importance of Rewards:

Acknowledging a successfully completed task

a dog eats a treat
Taking a treat nicely

Rewards, on the other hand, should indicate that our dogs that they have successfully completed a command, exercise, or task. It's a way of telling them, "Well done! You did it!" and celebrating their success with them.

There are various ways to reward your dog, depending on what they find desirable. For example, I'll often give Jaffa a kiss on the head and he loves that, but Miki would find that extremely intrusive. It would not be rewarding for him so I don't do it.

Rewards could include inviting them inside or through a boundary, allowing them on the sofa or bed, using a release command, offering treats or food, playing with their favourite toy, going for a walk, or any other enjoyable activity that they cherish. Naturally, patting can also fall into this category so it’s important to make sure that you are using that in the right way at the right time.

Choosing the Right Tone:

A delicate balance

Both positive reinforcement and rewards rely on the tone we use while communicating with our dogs.

It's essential to strike the right balance because the tone we choose can inadvertently convey the wrong message. For instance, if we praise our dogs for sitting on request, but we use an excited tone, our tone suggests that the task is complete, and they might stand up again, thinking they are done. Similarly, if the ‘tone’ of your patting – excited, fast, revved up patting – suggests the task is over, they’ll probably just get up. Why wouldn't they? That's the message you are sending.

So if you want them to hold position, use your calm praise and calm patting.

And if they have completed the task, use your excited voice and faster patting.

Confusion often arises when dog owners mix reinforcement and rewards together, causing uncertainty in their dogs' minds. To prevent this, it's crucial to be clear and consistent with our cues, ensuring that our dogs understand the difference between encouragement and acknowledgment of success.

Navigating Training Challenges

a brown dog is patted
Pats for positive reinforcement

So it’s really common in a lot of training scenarios for dogs to get up immediately after receiving praise, assuming the command is complete. This happens when positive reinforcement and rewards are inadvertently combined.

For instance, when a dog is asked to sit, and the dog promptly obeys, the owner might say "good boy/girl" and offer a treat simultaneously. As a result, the dog associates the praise with the completion of the command, leading to prematurely breaking position and difficulty getting any form of stay command happening.

An easy solution is to differentiate the praise from the reward.

The Road to Success:

Differentiating reinforcement and reward

To overcome such challenges and work towards having a well-trained dog, it's vital to differentiate clearly between positive reinforcement and rewards. By doing so, we can achieve a dog who maintains a command or holds boundaries under distraction, and remains calm and polite even when praised, without assuming the task is finished, all whilst receiving plenty of praise to keep them going.

a schnauzer gets a pat
Zander enjoys a full body stroke

Mastering the art of a successful release command is equally important in this process. It reinforces the idea that certain actions or behaviours are only completed when we give the signal to do so. If you learn to combine a clear understanding of positive reinforcement and rewards, with an effective release command you'll pave the way for more reliability in the commands, rules, or boundaries that you are practicing.

As busy dog owners, the relationship we are building with our four-legged friends through training, and day-to-day life, should be immensely rewarding. Embracing both positive reinforcement and rewards will not only strengthen our connection with our dogs but also lead them to become well-adjusted and obedient members of our families.

So, let's start communicating with our canine companions in a language they can understand.

About A New Leash on Life Dog Training

a lady with three dogs
Zander, Keryn, Jaffa & Miki

Because I use a balanced approach to dog training if you choose to train with me, we will be using positive reinforcement and rewards, but we will not be using food. I prefer not to rely on food because I don’t want to take food with me every place I ever go, I don’t want my dogs to learn to ignore me if I have no food or run out, and I don’t want to end up in a situation where I might still be of less importance to my dog, even with food, than the dog he's playing with or bird he’s chasing etc. Additionally, I do use the word no, and I do teach a consequence process for ignoring me or for an unacceptable behavioural choice, but without resorting to fear, intimidation, or pain.

So, for me, I train my dogs the way that I feel aligns with my belief system – rewards for listening and good behaviour but without food reliance – consequences without violence for inappropriate choices.

What do you believe in?


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