I use a lot of cookies when I train. Like really a lot. Especially when I’m teaching behaviors. I tug a lot with my dogs when I train. Like really a lot. So to be clear, I’m not against rewarding a lot. But it is important to pay attention to when and why you are delivering a reinforcer. Because I catch myself all the time going to give my dog a reward because…well, just because… hmmmm… and I see students do it all the time. We feed behaviors the dogs already know really well. We feed between exercises. We feed multiple cookies for a simple behavior. We just…well, feed…or tug… a lot. At some point, the value of the reward is diminished. At some point, the dog becomes dependent on a massive amount of reinforcement. At some point, we transition off the reinforcer because we are going in the ring…and the dog is blindsided. When I see a student randomly giving treats, I ask them “what was that for?”. Because I want them to start thinking about it. Why did I give that cookie? And am I achieving anything by giving that cookie(s). Why did you just feed your dog three cookies? Instead of one? If the answer is “I don’t know.” Or “Oh, I didn’t realize I was doing that.” Then maybe it wasn’t the best choice. For us humans, feeding at certain points becomes an ingrained habit. During the teaching phase, every time your dog sets up correctly in heel position, you reward. Great. Except two years later it’s an ingrained behavior for the dog, and you are still rewarding each time… because it’s also an ingrained behavior for you. If you are feeding out of habit, it might not be the best choice. You want to use your rewards thoughtfully and with purpose. You want the reward to be meaningful to your dog. You don’t want your dog to become completely dependent on very high rate of reinforcement. You want to challenge your dog a bit. Because that will create confidence. Knowing when and how much to reinforce is not always easy. The first step is becoming aware of when you reinforce, how much you reinforce and WHY you are reinforcing. If you are not sure, have your training partner keep track, ask your instructor for help, or video your training session. You might discover that some of your reinforcement is not benefitting your dog’s training. Which is great information. You can use that information to improve your communication and streamline your training.
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