Rewarding Good Choices

I think I touched on this briefly before in Five ways to enrich your dog’s life, where I mentioned teaching your dog to lie down on the floor instead of counter surfing.

The principle behind it is instead of asking your dog for a behaviour and then rewarding them when they do it, you need to catch your dog choosing to do something without being asked, and rewarding them for making good choices.

A lot of dog training is simply rewarding good choices, and not about “obedience” at all.

Here’s a video example of me rewarding Betsy when she makes a good choice.

You can’t see him, but the neighbour’s dog is barking at Betsy through a wire fence, hackles up. In situations like this I think it’s very easy for two dogs to get into a fence fight.

When the dog first starts barking, Betsy’s hackles also go up, and she is watching him, looking very coiled. But ultimately, she chooses to turn her head away and disengage, and her body language visibly loosens up. I praise her for choosing the avoid-conflict route, and give her a treat. Note that at no point did I ask her for any behaviour, I let her make that choice on her own.

Next time, because she was rewarded for going the no-conflict route, Betsy will be more likely to make that same choice again, and again, and again, the more I reward it, until the other option – responding aggressively – doesn’t even enter her head as an option!

Obviously dogs don’t always make good choices for us to reward. If Betsy were a highly fence-reactive dog, maybe there would be no point in me waiting for her to choose, because I’d already be pretty certain of the outcome. In cases like that, I’d ask for an alternate behaviour and reward her for listening to me. Eventually, she may start offering the alternate behaviour on her own. I have a video example of that too, which I posted before in my Teaching your dog to settle on their mat post…

Betsy loves to bark at people when they come to the door, and there is no way in hell that she is going to choose to stop on her own. She will bark up until the moment I open that door. So instead of waiting for a choice, I ask her for a behaviour:

Both methods work great in different situations, but if you can reward a good choice whenever you see one, I think you’re off too a great start with your dog. It’s such an awesome way to get your dog behaving politely without any explicit command from you.

Here are some choices I reward on a regular basis with Betsy:

  • Not barking when there’s something exciting happening outside the house.
  • Not engaging when other dogs try to start something with her (e.g. if a dog growls at her, Betsy will choose to turn around and look at me, instead of growling back. This is a bit of a cheat because I used to ask for this behaviour, and it has started to become automatic choice).
  • Laying around calmly (when Betsy is lying around on the floor, I will give her a treat, or take her for a walk. I do not take her for walks when she is whining and pacing.)
  • Sitting or laying down at my feet when we are on a walk and someone stops to chat with me.
  • Glancing up to make eye contact with me when we are out on a walk.
  • Coming back to check in with me when she is off-leash.

So! What kind of choices do you reward your dog for making? 😀

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