What to take into consideration in positive reinforcement for dogs – The Weight of Reward

Dog owners sometimes have the urge to quickly eliminate the use of treats & toys, or praise when working with their dogs. However, forgoing the use of rewards prematurely, or entirely, can make life more challenging when asking our dogs to behave in a certain way or perform different behaviors. It’s important to understand that all behavior is a means to access reinforcers or evade punishers. That is, we all do things to get good stuff or avoid bad stuff! In developing and maintaining positive relationships with our dogs, just like human family and friends, we use good stuff to build value, trust, and behavior.

Rewarding dogs for behaviors we like can do a few really cool things in our dog’s brains and bodies. Depending on the type of reward (food/treats, playing with toys, social interactions, praise, petting, etc.) there can be a release of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins that are released throughout their bodies. These natural chemical responses work in our favor and can create a strong reinforcement history, helping our dogs to understand that certain actions or choices earn them multi-faceted rewards. (E.g., treats don’t just taste good, they feel good!) Over time, these good feelings can be associated with people and places- building value for working with you and visiting special environments.

When to use positive reinforcement for dogs?

When we choose to reward our dogs with things they like, we’re better able to control and predict the outcome when asking our dogs to do things like come when called, sit, lay down, or walk nicely on leash. However, when we don’t provide positive reinforcement for dogs, we should be prepared for our pets to choose the reinforcer that is readily available to them (even if we don’t particularly like it). This may be barking at squirrels, pulling on leash, or going for an impromptu run in the neighborhood.

Natural behaviors, as well as behaviors our dogs simply enjoy, are self-reinforcing. This means they are more likely to occur than “unnatural” or learned behaviors when rewards are not being utilized. Think about all the things your dog naturally loves to do. Digging, chewing, running, barking… Now think about all the things you’ve taught your dog to do. Given the opportunity to freely choose between the two, which do you think your dog would prefer doing? Overall, when asking your dog to perform learned behaviors, take into consideration these things:

How often is my dog rewarded for this action?

Reinforcement history is incredibly powerful. Behaviors that are reinforced regularly will be performed with more consistency. Additionally, ask yourself, have they performed the behaviors I’m asking for in this environment before? Reinforcement history exists in spaces, learned behaviors need to be learned and practiced in all sorts of places for the behavior to exist in all sorts of places. This means teaching a “sit” at home does not necessarily translate to “sit” at the curb on a walk. “Come” in the back yard does not equate to “come” at the park. You must intentionally build the learned behavior in new environments the same way you originally built it at home, this is the process of generalization.

Would my dog rather be doing something else?

If going for a walk, you likely want your dog to practice loose-leash walking, i.e. not pulling you on the walk. If they see or smell something they’d like access to and we don’t have any rewards available to reward them for engaging with us over the environment, we can “lose” them mentally. If they would rather be investigating or interacting with that “other thing” (the squirrel, the other dog, the pee spot on the tree, etc.) and we don’t leverage reward in some way, our dogs will often seek out their reward elsewhere. In this scenario, we should reward regularly and consistently for attention and a lack of pulling. As the behavior we like becomes more fluent from repeated practice and reinforcement, eventually we can leverage access to the environment as a reinforcer. “If you walk with me, you get treats” can turn into “if you walk with me, you can sniff that tree”. The treats are easier to control than sniffs when first teaching your dog how to walk nicely, but once you can get several steps in without your dog pulling, you can use access to the environment as a reward!

Carla Dusel, CPDT-KA

Training & Education Coordinator