The Importance of a Paycheck

Last week, we discussed the importance of generosity in training. This week, let’s talk about another key skill that makes professional trainers so successful: the rewards themselves.

There are lots of different ways that you can reward your dog. Let’s look at a couple different scenarios to see which might work the best.

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC, flickr

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC, flickr

Let’s go back to our ping-ponging dog who’s learning to walk on a leash. Remember him? This guy was a real handful for his owner, only walking by her side long enough to earn a click and treat, then rushing out to the end of the leash before repeating the whole sequence again. Click – treat – rush – circle back – click – treat – rush —- you get the picture. How frustrating!

When I started working with this same dog, I kept him busy. I got his attention before we started moving, then began rewarding him so frequently that he never had time to rush to the end of his leash. He was too busy earning his rewards!

Generosity will go a long ways towards solving many training issues that you find yourself in. However, generosity alone isn’t enough. The rewards that you use, and the way that you utilize those rewards, will make a big difference as well.

Think of rewards as paychecks for your dog. In order to be meaningful, paychecks have to be something that your dog actually wants, and have to be delivered after your dog has done the work to earn them. Think of each reward you give your dog as a trade for a unit of effort. In the beginning stages, we need to reward even the tiniest bits of effort, because your dog is learning what you expect of him. As he becomes more proficient and begins to understand the game, it takes less effort to produce the same result, so your paychecks will naturally begin to come less frequently. Denise and Deb explain this concept very well in their book, so if you haven’t read it yet now may be a good time to pick up a copy.

Thinking of rewards as paychecks for effort will help you to figure out how frequently and how lavishly to reward your dog. At home, where there are few competing distractions and I’m the most interesting game in town, I reward my dogs with kibble, praise, petting, and personal play. When we leave the house, however, it takes substantially more effort for my dog to work for me, so I give them a pay raise and reward more frequently with tug toys, chicken, beef, cheese, hot dog pieces, and personal play.

Using appropriately valuable rewards generously will go a long way towards solving most attention and other training problems that you run into with your dog. What rewards work best at home for your dog? What rewards work best in more exciting or distracting environments? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments section below!

8 responses to “The Importance of a Paycheck

  1. Great article.
    I’ve been paying my dogs for years and it shows.
    Of late, I’ve run into trainers who “don’t train with treats” Being on the other side, I don’t understand that.
    Your thoughts please.

  2. One of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had in training was realizing how often to reward for good behaviour. I believe it clicked in my head after watching multiple youtube training videos for something (I can’t remember, but I believe it was leg weaves). We’d tried months and months ago to get it, but once I realized rapid-fire rewarding literally meant clicktreatclicktreatclicktreat he was able to pick it up within three sessions.

  3. Reblogged this on Jambo – Staffy Bull Terrier Trick Dog and Tessa. and commented:
    “Think of rewards as paychecks for your dog!”

  4. Very informative! I see the mistake of NOT rewarding your dog enough, way too many times. As well as, not making your dog work to receive that “paycheck.”

  5. Allyson Cowan

    Great writing! It’s alluded to in this article but another great way to keep the reward valuable for your dog is to mix it up! I tell my students to make a treat trail mix so their dogs don’t get the same treat every time. Keeping the dogs guessing keeps them from being bored and allows you to get more out of your training session!

  6. My dog has an ever growing genetic anxiety problem that we can’t seem to fix with behavior modification, so treating has been a very important part of our lives. In the house where we have more control over her triggers we use whatever store bought treats she has handy (we get one of those monthly subscription boxes), when we’re out, which is often because not surprisingly separation is a trigger, I use more table food she likes or distracting things like a toy or a chew. And a lot of physical contact. When we’re out success varies because her anxiety level can range from wheezing/drooling to that weird staring catatonic thing, so higher stress equals less success with any sort of commands and treats because even getting her attention gets more difficult.

  7. Josephine Coutrot

    This is not a tip nor a trick, just a ” situation”. Understanding the importance of high value treats, I treat my dog with cooked chiken or turkey meat, cut into pea size bits. The situation I have to face is that she gets so aroused by the treats that I am not shure she’s learning anything. Today she was barking like mad, I wonder if she could even hear the clicker….(training a release cue). When training drop, she drops once, and then no interest at all for the toy or shoe or whatever i’m presenting her : completely focused on the food. I also train “leave it” and strangely she is quiet good with that : complaining a bit but not barking during the 30 sec she must wait. Any suggestions or comments would be very very welcome.

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