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  • Darrin Greene

Reward or distraction? Using rewards effectively in training

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Reward, distraction or a little bit of both?

What’s a huge reward is also a huge distraction!

But, excessive arousal is in almost every case your enemy, especially when trying to teach new skills.

Your value in the equation can be quickly diminished when there is something for your dog to work for that doesn’t involve you.

We are always competing with the environment for our dog’s attention.

In setting up a training scenario, all of these factors need to be considered. We must decide how we are going to set things up so we can hold our dog’s attention and keep them calm enough to actually learn something?

This starts with controlling the environment. Depending on our student’s experience, skill level and instincts, we may want to start wth what’s typically called a “low distraction” environment. This may be a quiet room with just your dog and you. In this artificial “low distraction” world (it’s going to be rare that you need obedience when there are no other influences), you can easily hold your dog’s attention by making sure they know a “reward” is present. There’s not much to distract them from, so you and the hotdogs in your pocket are plenty good enough to hold your dog’s attention and help them learn something.

Now, take that same, very inexperienced dog out into the real world with bunnies and squirrels and cats and other dogs and people. Suddenly, you’re going to find out that you, and those hotdogs have lost a lot of their value. You can no longer distract your dog from the outside world. In this scenario - your dog has little chance of learning without some other sort of intervention.

In this case - your “rewards” have become useless.

In another scenario - we have a dog who’s been taught to pay attention to you in an environment with many distractions. Again there may be lions and tigers and bears (just kidding, I mean critters and dogs and people). This dog was taught through simple leash control coupled with praise or some other lower value reward. They’re doing a great job out in the world because of this training… and then…

You introduce their highest value reward!

Now we’re back to that same struggle. The dog who is paying good attention, has a low to medium arousal level and is learning something becomes a wild eyed maniac who’s only focus is on that thing he wants! You’re chopped liver!

But now, through simple leash and collar communication, we can teach them to go through us to access that thing they hold so dear they can’t take their eyes off it!

If we’ve built up enough value in our simple interaction with the dog, this can be a fairly simple process. We simply apply all the rules the dog knows in an environment where their favorite thing is present, then allow them access strategically, in return for performing the behaviors we desire.

Remember this when you start using rewards in training.

If your dog learns that their favorite reward is always around and it doesn’t take much work to access it, that reward may not have much effect on them when the world takes over. They probably won’t be willing to work very hard to access it! What you thought was their favorite thing in that artificial low distraction environment may take a back seat to 100 other things they encounter. Choose carefully.

On the flip side…

If your dog has learned that you are the key to accessing their favorite thing. If they’ve truly learned through their interactions with you, regardless of environment, that you are the key to success, introducing their favorite thing in life while maintaining cooperation can happen fairly easily.

Keep those high value rewards out of the equation until they are not so distracting to your dog that they can’t learn.

In the attached pic we have Max, learning to do what he always does… Pay attention to his handler, even with his favorite tennis ball in the foreground. Don’t worry, Max got to chase the ball many times in this session, but only when he overcame it as a distraction and did what he already knows how to do.

Max learned his basic tasks through a combination of food rewards as a young puppy and leash/collar work as he got a bit older. Now we’re putting the pieces all together and using the ball as a distraction, and a reward, all in the same exercise.

Training takes time, effort and planning. It’s rarely successful if it relies on so much environmental control that you never meet the real world. Your dog has to pay attention to you, first and foremost. Achieve that and you have a real chance at winning!

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