I’m going to ask you a trick question: when should you reward your dog?
Sounds pretty easy, right?
On the surface yes, but the answer to this question could be the reason your dog isn’t as well behaved as you would like. So let’s get into how you can make sure you get this right.
Dogs are pretty simple – they just want to get all the stuff they like as quickly as possible. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Once they figure out what gets them the things they value, they double down on those behaviors like crazy because they work.
I’m sure that’s no surprise to you but I want to make sure you remember that as we move along here.
Next I want to point out that whatever you reward, you will get more of.
Yes, I know that’s another no brainer, however, many people fail to recognize all the rewards that are being dished out to your dog on a daily basis. And if you’re not very aware, you end up rewarding a whole bunch of stuff you don’t want.
If you want a well behaved pooch you have to think before you reward. To get this right, before you let your dog have anything of value, you need to make sure you check off 3 boxes in your head.
More on that in a minute, but first I think we need to define what a reward is to your dog.
Everyone see’s food as a reward but there is so much more things your dog likes and is getting every single day that is rewarding to him. Yes, food is a reward and treats are nice but don’t forget “life rewards.”
Going outside is a big reward for most dogs. Does your dog like to take walks? Does he enjoy going out and playing in the back yard?
Heading out of the house is really fun for just about every dog and is a valuable reward. So when he get’s that reward, what are you rewarding?
If your dog goes into a crazy fit of excitement at the mere sight of the leash and then bursts through the door like he’s been shot out of a cannon, what are you rewarding?
Yup, you guessed it – crazy excitement and exploding out the door.
Is that what you want more of? Do you want an excited, pushy, nut-ball for a dog? Probably not, so you MUST NOT reward that. If you do, don’t be surprised when your dog acts like that more often (when it’s not so convenient for you).
So food and going outside are valuable rewards for your dog. What else?
Dogs are lovers of life and enjoy so much of what’s around them (we should follow their lead more). Here are a few life rewards to keep a look out for:
- Playing with you
- Playing with another dog
- Coming up on the couch or bed
- Attention from you (can even include simple eye contact)
Those are just some of the main things, but if you think about your own dog I bet you can come up with a few more rewarding situations in your world. Many don’t think of simple attention as a reward but I bet if you interview your dog that would up on the top of his great stuff of life list.
Anytime you allow your dog to get any of those rewards you must be completely okay with what everything you’re rewarding because you’re soon going to be seeing a whole lot more of it.
The 3 Checkboxes
So before you give you dog anything he values you need to make sure three things are taken care of the way you prefer. Imagine a checklist in your head and there’s a little guy named Pepe up there with a pencil and he’s waiting to put a check mark next to each of the following 3 boxes (why Pepe? who knows, but that’s what my guy is named. Feel free to name your little mental assistant anything you like).
1 – Is this behavior you like?
What is your dog doing right now, as he’s about to get his reward. Is it something you like and would want more of?
While you’re pondering that question I want you to think big picture. Let’s say you’re at the front door, about to go out for a walk and your dog, who just loves to get out in the world and get his walk on, is spinning in circles and jumping up in excitement.
Now you may say, “so what, I like it that he’s so excited to go out.” I understand and I’m with you, however do you really want that behavior more – even when he’s not going for a walk. You see if a behavior is rewarding why not do it more often in other situations?
Dogs tend to generalize and if jumping up and down works for one reward, they will try it for others and soon you’ll be left with a crazy dog that is always jumping up because it’s been rewarded.
2 – Is this a good (calm) state of mind?
For me this second box is the most important and also the one the most people miss. If your dog gets his reward in an excited state of mind, that’s what you’re going to get more of. And as we just learned that will bleed into all kinds of other situations.
The reason why state of mind is much more important than behavior is that state of mind will directly affect behavior, but the reverse is not always true. If you focus on state of mind, your dog’s behavior will usually improve.
If your dog is calm, he won’t jump. However, if he sits but is still overly excited, he’s still likely to jump. Rewarding calm will cause this ripple effect of better behavior because your dog will act instead of react. Simply put, dogs make dopey decisions in an excited or aroused state of mind, but they make good choices when calm.
[spp-tweet tweet=”Dogs make dopey decisions in an excited or aroused state of mind, but they make good choices when calm.”]
It’s okay to have a little happy wiggle, just not manic craziness. On a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being totally calm and 10 being all out nuts, you want to reward anything 4 and under.
3 – Was this your idea?
This one is subtle but important. Who’s initiating the reward?
In the above example of taking your dog out for a walk, you don’t want your dog pushing his way out the door. Instead you want him to get all his rewards on your terms and for me all I want is for him to “say please.”
That’s not too much ask, is it? Just a simple please. For dogs, it’s only a pause and some quick eye contact. That’s it.
If you’re at your door, ready to go out for walk, you wait until your dog is calm and patiently waiting by the door (a sit is fine if you like), then get his attention (you pupils need to meet for a moment) and then you can invite him out the door.
He can still go out in front of you but it was your idea. Now if your dog is still rocketing out the door I might recommend you go first, but as long as you are the one calling the shots, it really doesn’t matter.
Progress Not Perfection
If you’re just starting this it may take some time and patience to wait for your dog to settle down and get his attention. Giver yourself some extra time before each situation that your want to reward so you can take the necessary time for your dog to get it.
He’s no dummy though. If you stay consistent, he’ll start to get better every time as he figures out what gets him his rewards the fastest. And once he knows all rewards come when he is calm, well behaved and only after he checks with you, you’ll see an amazing transformation.
If you just make sure you’re checking these three boxes before every single reward, you won’t really need to do too much other training to have a pretty good pooch.
Starting right now, make it a point to figure out all of your dog’s daily rewards and make sure the boxes are checked before he gets any of them. Then enjoy your new well-behaved furry pal.
Give it a try and tell Pepe I say “Hi.”