As many dog owners know, the responsibility of being a hoo-mum or dad includes the job of teaching your dog which behaviours are acceptable as well as training them to respond to your commands. Using positive reinforcement – also known as reward – is an effective way to teach and encourage your dog to repeat desired behaviours. While there are a range of rewards that you can offer your dog, training with dog treat rewards is perhaps the most powerful way to motivate behaviour.
Training your dog using rewards
Humans become aware of the concepts of reward and punishment from a young age – even as children, we go to great lengths to seek reward. These behavioural tendencies are not exclusive to humans and while the cognitive functioning of dogs is arguably quite different, some of these same principles apply. Like humans, the brain functions of dogs and other animals also lead them to seek reward through interaction with their environments.
If you spend any amount of time around your four legged friend it doesn’t take long to realise that dogs love food and are VERY motivated by treats. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense – prior to domestication (comfy beds and home prepared dinners served at the same time each day) dogs needed to hunt and scavenge for their food. This food was not always in abundance, so for doggos it was survival of the fittest (or survival of the most motivated to seek out dinner).
Even in pre-domesticated dogs, food and reward created an important basis for learning – essentially, behaviours that led to a meal were repeated and those that left the dog hungry were not. In a similar way, dog training treats can be used to reward correct behaviour in order to encourage a repeat of that action.
What does positive reinforcement mean and what is positive reinforcement training?
Positive reinforcement is a term coined by psychologist and behaviourist B.F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. This term is used to describe the way that the addition of a positive stimulus (or reward) reinforces and strengthens the associated behaviour, leading to a repeat of that behaviour.
Skinner used his famous experiment with a rat in a cage to demonstrate this learning (or conditioning) process. Inside the rat’s cage was a lever that would release a pellet of food if pressed. The rat initially pressed this lever by accident but soon learned the consequence of doing so – the positive stimulus (food) began to be associated with the behaviour (pressing the lever). This behaviour was then strengthened by repeating the reward process and soon the rat would press on the lever anytime it felt like a snack.
Other rewards can be utilised both on their own and by association – for example, while a reassuring pat might be a useful to positively reinforce a behaviour, this combined with a treat reward can help to associate the two. We often use the phrase ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ to indicate to our dog that they have performed the correct behaviour, however this only derives meaning when paired with positive reinforcement such as a dog treat reward.
What is a cue in dog training?
A cue is a stimulus that is used to prompt a rewarded behaviour and indicates to the dog that a reward is on offer. The teaching of cues can be achieved by using a word (or other stimulus) to indicate that the behaviour should be performed in order to receive a reward. When learned, a cue can act as a prompt for the behaviour, even in the absence of the reward or positive reinforcement.
How do rewards work in dog training?
As we have just read, rewards work by associating a positive stimulus – such as food – with the desired behaviour. Over time, a repeated association of the behaviour and reward leads to a strengthening of this behaviour. As a part of this process we can include cues to let our dog know that a reward is available and – through repetition – we can use this cue to prompt the desired behaviour. For example, if we tell our dog ‘sit’ while rewarding that behaviour, the word begins to become associated with the prospect of a reward and the desired sitting behaviour is performed in anticipation.
Much in the same way as the rat in Skinner’s study, our dog’s correct responses may sometimes be accidental as they experiment with different ways to access the reward. The key here is to quickly reward the correct behaviour, which may initially include rewarding behaviours that resemble that behaviour (even if they are not perfect). For example, teaching your dog to sit might mean a bottom not quite on the ground initially, but the sitting behaviour can be fine-tuned from that initial starting point. Key to this process is the word ‘quickly’ – behaviours must be rewarded almost instantaneously to avoid the reward being associated with another behaviour or external event.
One strategy that is useful in teaching the association of reward and behaviour is to include a marker, such as by saying ‘good dog’ (or any other way that you might like to verbalise your dog’s VERY impressive good behaviour). If this is timed along with the delivery of a reward, the marker will then help the dog to know exactly which behaviour they are being rewarded for, even if the timing of the reward is a little slow.
What happens if I stop giving my dog treat rewards?
Skinner’s study (and many since) revealed that behaviours learned through positive reinforcement training will eventually disappear over time if the reward is no longer present, leading to extinction of the behaviour. However, the behaviour extinction process is influenced by the strength of the learned behaviour.
There are several factors that help to develop strong behaviours – one of these is the motivational power of the reward. The tastiest treats are often bigger motivators than boring ones, and while cuddles, pats and ‘good dogs’ are pleasant, they usually are ranked lower than dog treats. There may be other things that your dog enjoys which can be useful when used as a reward, such as their favourite toy or ball. Essentially, in order to be effective, your reward needs to be more powerful than other stimuli in the environment, such as chasing the cat or chewing on the old stinky hock knuckle in the back yard.
The second factor is the regularity of reward in the learning situation. While rewarding every correct behaviour is important in the early learning stages, intermittent or irregular positive reinforcement is more effective in maintaining the behaviour response over time. If rewards are no longer offered, you might find your dog a little slower to sit and much less obliging when it comes to staying there for any amount of time. However, by offering rewards intermittently or on an unpredictable schedule the strength of the learned dog behaviour will be much greater and thus more resistant to extinction.
What happens if I reward my dog too often?
While ceasing rewards can weaken the associated behaviour, rewarding too regularly and predictably can mean that the behaviours are more prone to extinction when the reward is no longer offered. While your dog will appreciate very regular rewards, you may find that your training is more effective if your doggo is rewarded irregularly or intermittently.
Dog treats for training rewards
Below are a selection of our favourite training treats for dogs, which can be broken into smaller pieces or fed in single chunks;
Crispy, crackle, crunch… Delicious shark cartilage dog treats packed with all the good stuff (especially great for dogs with joint or skin complaints).
Dehydrated to retain nutrients at highest levels and natural stink factor and taste that pets love!
Fish jerky for dogs is a supaw tasty seafood dog treat and is a rich source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial proteins, amino acids and Vitamin D. These nutrients are essential for early development for muscles, eyes, heart and brain development and then later in life for joint support and teeth health. Omega 3s improve skin and coat condition and also reduce itching.
Gully Road Pawty Mix is a generous serve of delicious mixed dog treats from 100% Australian sources. This pack includes beef, lamb, pork and chicken & seafood ‘bits’ all mixed up for a mixed treato delight selection.
These treatos are perfect snack size pieces when fed whole and are packed with powerful anti-inflammatories, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, amino acids, antioxidants & enzymes.
About Gully Road for Dogs
Gully Road is a small dog treat business based in Western Victoria. We stock only Australian made dog treats, with a focus on ethically sourced and sustainable products. Our online store enables our customers to buy dog treats online for delivery Australia-wide knowing that they are all natural and from the best quality, ethical sources.