Dogs, as humans, thrive on rewards
Brain scientists know very well that changes in dopamine level increase our ability to learn. This knowledge is based on research both in humans and animals, and also holds true for dogs.
Most of us have used both praise and treats to help our dogs do as we want them to. And getting a smaller reward (or none at all) than expected, or a bigger reward than expected, is really driving our learning, according to scientists.
Dogs not only like treats and praise. Many dogs are motivated by play, sniffing the environment, jumping into the water or hunting for mice and moles - or a combination.
Here are some ways to help your dog learn by positive reinforcement:
1) Use your voice
Research shows that speaking in a praising tone of voice is equally effective to treats in its effect on your dog’s brain. Your dog appreciates both. You have endless possibilities for regulating your voice to fit the situation, and your desired outcome. And by saying nothing, and ignoring by your body language, you can very efficiently correct your dog’s behaviour. Look very hard for ways to tell your dog what you want (praise for letting go of your kid’s toy) instead of saying no til det du ikke ønsker (when the dog pick up your kid’s toy). When your dog is not doing as you want it to, simply do not reward it by keeping your mouth shut.
2) Give tasty treats and snack
Treats work best as rewards when your dog is a bit hungry, and when you use some super tasty ones. It’s a good idea to vary your selection of treats, to keep your dog’s interest over time. Make sure your training sessions are short enough to train while your dog is not full yet, and use small enough bites. Keep the super tasty treats for training new things or things you struggle with, to ensure your dog’s motivation is in place.
Unfortunately, many dogs today struggle with overweight, and snacks and treats are often forgotten when measuring out the dog’s daily ration. If you need to watch your dog’s weight, look for lean treats (white fish, low fat cheese, chicken, turkey or other lean pieces of meat), snack like fruit (apple, blueberries, banana) or vegetables (carrots) that are tasty, and fill your dog up more on protein and fibre. If your dogs daily food is motivating enough, then you can use some of that when training. Subtract treats and other food you give your dog from its daily food ration, to make sure the snack and treats don’t add too many calories.
3) Play together with your dog’s favourite toy
Not all dogs are super motivated by food, and some like it better when they are allowed to chew on their favourite ball, play a tug game with you, or bite on a piece of leather. It’s also a great way to bond with your dog, and strengthen the relationship with you.
4) Let your dog sniff around – just loosen the grip on the leash a bit
You don’t have to take the leash off, if you have difficulties getting your dog back to you. Just give your dog some time to take in the environment, to get a pause from the activity with you, while still on the leash. This is a great reward to use when you are outside, and let your dog rest in a positive way for learning.
5) Let your dog do its favourite activity
Some dogs love swimming, others digging a hole! Try finding something that you find ok, and your dog also loves! When your dog has done as you asked for in training, let is do what it likes the best afterwards.
My dog is a total cuddle addict, and I often end up combining several of the mentioned steps when training dogs. Cuddling and vocal praise in combination are very natural to use for many of us, and its also very efficient for learning.
Do you need more support?
If you need help in gettting the relation to your dog you long for, contact me to find time for a 40 minutes talk on the phone. A clarifying talk with me is free of charge, as I take much interest in the human collaboration with and relationship to dogs.