You get what you reward…

Ever so subtly, we sabotage ourselves. We have the perfect picture of our dog’s position and performance in our head, but yet we do things in training which work against that picture. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t. But, hopefully, we fix our errors before they become a trained behavior in our dog.

Reward placement and the maintenance of criteria are critical in every aspect of dog training, whether you do obedience, agility, nosework or dock diving. Little things we do as trainers, can degrade or enhance our dog’s understanding of what proper position and performance actually involves.

In obedience, reward placement is crucial. Dogs are smart and opportunists by nature. If we reward less effort, what encourages them to work harder? For example, have you every heard someone complain about their dog leaning sideways while performing a front? But, then watched the person reward their dog for an “acceptable” front with one hand off to the side of their body…and probably rewarding their dog after digging through their side pocket trying to find a cookie! The handler is causing the leaning with their reward placement, and then rewarding the dog for leaning…the very behavior they want to extinguish!

Or, when heeling, the dog is crabbing or wrapping and the handler ignores it because the dog is animated and pushy, wanting to work for their toy or cookie. (I catch myself in this dilemma often with my young dog!) You HAVE to maintain your criteria for your dog to understand exactly where he needs to be.

Remember, your dog does not dictate where and when the reward happens. If you begin accommodating your dog on certain behaviors, then you are training him to do the exercise incorrectly. Who is training who?

Let me give a couple of examples to help clarify my point.

Signal stand and moving stand – Dog does not stop quickly and lock into the stand position

The dog takes too many steps before coming to a complete stop and ends up in a forged position. Or, the person accommodates the failure to lock into a stand by taking extra steps themselves or slowing their pace. But, guess what, the dog stopped! So you reward the stand and walk away to practice your signals or the call to heel. Problem…you have just told your dog that his failure to lock into a stand position was acceptable. And, even worse, the 1-2 steps in practice, will likely turn into 2-3 steps in the ring.

Now, some people are thinking “Well, what SHOULD I do?” This is where I often see people starting to smack a dog in the nose or give a stronger verbal along with a signal. Essentially, punishing the dog for YOUR improper training during the foundation work. Not very fair to the dog, is it? Instead, go back and help the dog understand the reward placement for the signal stand…and do not reward anything other than EXACTLY what you want the behavior to look like. This does not mean you should not praise effort, but do not feed the dog!

In my dog’s case, this would be a cookie in the hand I am giving the signal with. I would also probably help the dog with a quiet verbal, depending on which dog I was working. If my dog locked up in his stand wonderfully, he may get a quick, rapid fire reward of cookies to clearly show him that I loved what he just did. Or, he may get released to a toy thrown behind him. But, if he did not stop and stand exactly like I wanted, I would simply give him a negative “oops” marker and try again. And, as I am a huge proponent of making the dog work harder in practice, I would also implement some backwards motion into the stand. Meaning, as I stopped and signaled for the stand, I would also take a step backwards, requiring the dog to shift his weight back faster (or even take steps backwards) to stay in position to earn his reward.

Do not change your handling (extra steps, slowing your pace, etc.) to accommodate your dog’s failure to perform the exercise correctly. If you do not think the judge notices this handler error, you are wrong. Smoothly transition into your stand and require your dog stop in heel position. And, by all means, if your dog does not perform the stand properly in practice, do not walk away from them to practice signals!

Finishes – dog finishes with his rear out or is slow

I, as much as anyone, love to reward fast finishes. However, IF you are going to let your dog sit before rewarding them, make sure they are sitting straight! It is amazing how fast those half points add up in Open and Utility, so straight finishes are essential. The more fast, crooked sits you reward…guess what? The more crooked sits you will get!!

So, if I’m working on adding or maintaining speed to heel position, I avoid having to nit-pick straight sits by not letting the dog sit at all! A prime example is the call to heel on the moving stand exercise. If I practice the call to heel component in its entirely every time I do the exercise, my dog’s return is going to slow down. Instead, I work on the dog driving to heel position from the stand by calling the dog to a toy or cookie in my left hand (for a left finish).

Find what works best for your dog. For example, what worked well for my German Shepherd was actually calling her to heel, but then asking for a hand touch mid-way back to me. If she did not give me a hand touch, her correction was a little bounce to the hand and another try to do it correctly. But, in the ring, it kept her speed up and gave me a cute little bounce into heel position. However, if I did this with my younger Springer, he wound die of boredom! He loves his tug, so that is what I use.

To help your dog work harder on his sit, think about how to make them give you more effort to get into proper position. Some examples:

  • Left finish – pivot 90 degrees left AS the dog is turning to sit in heel position (move before they sit)
  • Left finish – take a step to your right or backwards as the dog is coming up to sit. A step forward makes it easier.
  • Right finish – take a step to your right as the dog is coming up to sit
  • Right finish – spin to the right as the dog is coming around. For my dogs, I will generally have a toy or cookie in my left hand to help the speed.
  • Hand touch or hand push in heel position
  • Attention, attention, attention! Do not let your dog sit and look forward into space. My dogs are required to look up at me on every finish.

Above all else, maintain your criteria on every piece of the exercise. If your dog does something you do not like, do NOT keep going! Mark the behavior you did not like, break off and try again. If you dog continues to fail, you need to change something. Maybe give them a short break, ask for a smaller piece of the exercise, back off the pressure or proofing, or help them with a verbal or extra signal a couple of times.

Continuing to fail (and being punished for it!) teaches your dog nothing, except to hate the sport of obedience.

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