One Delight of Reward-Based Training

One Delight of Reward-Based Training

There are lots of reasons why I use reward-based training. Today, I’m going to share one reason why I use reward-based training. It’s kind of a selfish reason. I use reward-based training because I cannot get enough of seeing the joyfulness in dogs when they’re training.

In training, I use things that dogs like to help them feel better about things in the world. I also use things they like to reinforce desirable behaviors to make those behaviors more likely to occur in the future.

And, there’s something delightful that happens when you’re training a dog using reward-based training. After a while, the dog will usually start to experiment with their behavior. It’s as if the dog is asking, “Does this work? What about this?” 

Sometimes, this experimentation looks like the dog has made a mistake. I give a cue for “sit,” and the dog thinks about it and raises a paw instead. While the specific paw-raising behavior would not get reinforced in that scenario, those little experiments are noteworthy expressions of creativity.

When dogs start to experiment with their behavior in training, it usually signals something important: the dog feels good about training. Our dogs are our friends, and we ought to want for our dogs to feel happy about things we do together. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness this over and over again with my clients’ dogs and my own dogs. Forgive my hyperbole, but it’s exhilarating.

Seeing this happen for one of my own dogs was especially significant for me. In October 2017, we decided to foster a dog named Thelma. Surrendered in Georgia and then transported north, Thelma found herself in a Pennsylvania animal shelter. And, she was afraid. She trembled nonstop when I first met her, even though it wasn’t cold, her body a tight bundle of fear.  

When we brought Thelma home, she was terrified. It took two weeks before she’d choose to be in the same room with us. We lived with a dog we could not touch, who was scared to look at us, and who would run and hide when we talked. It was humbling, to say the least. We adopted her later that year, in November. It would be another ten months before Ryan, my husband, could pick her up. 

We committed to helping her feel safe. We used food to create positive associations for many, many things in her life.  And we taught her that her behavior is meaningful by reinforcing behavior with food and play. It took a LOT of cheese, sausage, hotdogs, chicken breasts, ham, honey turkey, cans of spray cheese, spoonfuls of peanut butter, and things of cream cheese to get where we are today. And today, in June 2019, Thelma is thriving.

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She regularly cuts loose and uses her behavior to ask, “Hey, does this work? If I do this, will I get something good?”  

I recently used a training technique called shaping to teach her how to press the remote on my selfie stick so she could take a selfie. Here is one selfie that she took.

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Here is a video of her taking a selfie:

Similarly, because she learned that the vacuum cleaner predicts snacks for her, she once used her behavior to try to make it turn on. This was not a behavior I trained. She invented this completely on her own. But, it was the result of using reward-based training that made this little creative experiment possible.

When dogs offer behavior freely, with possibility and joy, it’s a true delight. And I cannot get enough.

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A Well-Balanced Companion

A Well-Balanced Companion