Training isn’t just about attending dog training classes, because our pet dogs are learning from us all the time. Here are some simple strategies to incorporate reward-based dog training into everyday life.
1. Find out what treats your dog likes best. Every dog has preferences, and while little pieces of chicken are a great go-to for most dog training, it’s a good idea to know what counts as a ‘regular’ treat for your dog and what they will really work hard for (maybe little pieces of cheese or roast beef?). You can use the ‘regular’ treats for easy training, and the extra special treats for important behaviors like coming when called. Research shows that dogs will run faster for a better reward (Riemer et al 2018), and over time most dogs prefer a variety of rewards (Bremhorst et al 2018).
2. Have frequent, short practice sessions. 5-10 minute sessions several times a day generally work better than one long session. And it’s easy to find time to fit in short, fun sessions.
3. Set up treat stations. Always have treats on hand to reward your dog for good behavior. Plan ahead. Here are some suggestions: A cookie jar by the front door to reward ‘four paws on the floor’ when guests arrive. Keep chopped chicken in the fridge. Consider how to carry these treats on your person for good behavior on walks, too. I love my bait bag, but some people prefer a Ziploc baggie in their pocket for crumbs from a pocketful of treats.
4. When toilet-training, keep necessities by the door. That means your coat and shoes, the dog’s harness and leash, cookies to reward the dog. When house training your puppy or dog, it’s essential to prevent accidents in the house, which means taking them outside frequently. You have to be ready to rush outside when your dog needs to go. (Remember: Don’t punish your dog for peeing in the house)
5. Plan ahead for tricky situations. Sometimes you know something will happen that your dog isn’t trained for yet. Suppose you have dinner guests coming over, but your dog goes crazy when the doorbell rings. You’re still working on the training, after all. Think about what you can do to prevent the situation from going pear-shaped. This is where Points #3 and #6 might be especially helpful.
6. Use separation to keep dogs out of mischief. For those times when you can’t supervise closely enough, use barriers such as pet gates, puppy pens, and doors. Think about the layout of your house and where it makes sense to have temporary barriers. Remember that it’s good for dogs to have a safe space to go (a comfy crate or bed in a quiet room) when they want peace and quiet.
7. Use food toys as easy enrichment. Puzzle toys are a fun way to get your dog to work for their food, and some will keep your dog occupied for quite a while. There is a lot to choose from on the market. Remember to make them easy to start with so that your dog doesn’t get frustrated. Here are some ideas from Dr. Liz Stelow at the Decoding Your Pet blog.
8. Be consistent. It helps the training if everyone in the household is consistent. Make sure everyone knows which behaviors to reward (for example, for a dog that keeps jumping up, everyone must all reward him for ‘sit’ or ‘four on the floor’) and where to find the treats. (In case you are wondering about little dogs, owners of smaller dogs tend to be less consistent in training, and have less obedient dogs (Arhant et al 2010)).
9. See mishaps as training opportunities. No one is perfect, and sometimes training doesn’t work out as well as hoped, or we accidentally put the dog in a situation that is too hard for them to deal with. Do what you need to in the moment, whether it’s apologizing to the person whose clothes are now covered in your dog’s muddy pawprints, or getting your dog away from something they are reacting to. Later, take a moment to think about how you could prevent or resolve such a situation in the future. It some cases, it might involve hiring a dog trainer.
10. Be generous. You’ve identified the treats your dog likes to work for, so remember that when they do what you’re asking, they deserve to get paid promptly. This will help keep them motivated for more training.
Following these tips will help you have a better-behaved dog. You can find more information about how science can help you with your dog in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.
Arhant, C., Bubbna-Lititz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science (123), 131-142.
Bremhorst, A., Bütler, S., Würbel, H., & Riemer, S. (2018). Incentive motivation in pet dogs–preference for constant vs varied food rewards. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 9756.
Riemer, S., Ellis, S. L., Thompson, H., & Burman, O. H. (2018). Reinforcer effectiveness in dogs—The influence of quantity and quality. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 206:87-93