One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learnt about training dogs was the difference between rewarding your dog, and giving your dog a reward experience. It was truly my own light bulb moment, there is more to training your dog than handing over a piece of food or throwing a ball or even playing tug.
Those things are just an action, it doesn’t involve the handler, just the dog and the reward. Changing how you use rewards with your dog and creating a reward experience can make an enormous difference in how hard your dog works, how focused your dog is, your dog’s desire to earn the reward and your dog’s value for you.
Not too long ago I was at training with one of my dogs and saw another handler rewarding their dog with a tug. The handler was holding a tug toy in their hand while the dog tugged on it, at the same time the handler was in the middle of a conversation with another person. The dog continued to tug halfheartedly on the toy and every now and then the handler would look to the dog, say something along the lines of ‘good dog’ and then turn away from the dog to keep talking to the person next to them. Was the handler giving the dog a reward? Sure. Was there any reward experience there for the dog? Not at all! How much desire was the dog showing for the reward? Could the dog’s desire for the reward be higher? Would the dog work harder or better if playing tug became more than simply tugging on a toy, but an experience to share with the handler? Of course!
Let’s look at another scenario for comparison , a handler finishes working with their dog and releases the dog to a tug toy they’ve placed on the ground or perhaps pulled out from behind their back or in their pocket. When the dog grabs the toy the handler tugs back, revving the dog up and encouraging them, throwing a party and becoming part of the reward experience as much as the tug is part of the reward experience. The dog feels the handler engaging with them and giving the dog their undivided attention , the dog knows the owner is excited that they’ve got it right and earnt the reward. All these factors add to creating a reward experience for the dog, an experience that involves the handler and makes them as important as the reward itself.
A dog that has learnt how the reward experience works knows that it takes more than one element, the reward, to make the experience happen. Without the handler, a tug has little to no value. When we see dogs we’ve trained to enjoy the reward experience with their handler, the dog will often show little to no interest in the tug unless the owner has it in their hands or is participating in the game. If the handler lets the tug go or throws it the dog brings it back to them and shoves it back in their hands. The dog knows that the handler is an integral part of creating the reward experience.
This can be applied to dogs who are trained with food as well, in fact we find handlers that use food in training can often fall into the trap of rewarding the dog rather than creating a reward experience because it’s so easy to hand the dog a piece of food and the whole process of rewarding the dog lasts about half a second or as long as it takes the dog to eat the piece of food. How we handle the food and use it to create the reward experience can make an immediate difference to the dog’s focus and desire for the piece of food. We have a game we play at K9 Pro called 1, 2,3 FOOD! that helps teach handlers how to go from rewarding their dog to creating a reward experience very quickly. We also have a game called ‘Show me’ that also teaches you how to build a better reward experience for your dog. The difference it makes when you play these games with your dog can be huge!
If you have a dog that runs away with the reward, won’t bring the tug back, lacks desire for the reward or drive during training, ask yourself if are you creating a reward experience? Are you part of the reward experience or are you just rewarding the dog? How much value does your dog have for you and the rewards you have to offer?
Creating a reward experience increases your dog’s value for the reward, and your dog’s value for you. The more value your dog has for the reward and the reward experience, the harder it works, and the more engaged and focused it will be. Do you create a reward experience for your dog? Or is it something you need to work on? Let us know how training works for you in the comments below!