By Diana Logan
Want a tighter heel? A better recall? An easier time handling your dog? A polite greeter? Do you want to hone your training skills in general?
“Positive Reinforcement Training is Simple, but it’s not Easy” (Bob Bailey)
We know that positive reinforcement training methods result in happy, engaged learners, that rewards of all kinds feed future repetitions of the behavior and help build a line of communication between species…. but did you know that the actual reward delivery technique itself has a significant and direct influence on the behavior you are trying to reinforce?
“Feed the Position”
When you picture someone offering a treat to a dog, you might imagine a person bending over, reaching forward and down towards a dog sitting in front of them. What are the behaviors being rewarded? You would probably say “sit”, and this is accurate, but what’s specifically being rewarded is sit in front. The dog learns that good stuff happens in front of people. It’s only natural that we do this; it’s comfortable for both of us and eye contact is easier this way.
Our dogs’ behaviors are influenced by the “picture” they are seeing at that moment, so to speak. They may sit when requested, but the “sit” cue may rely heavily on our position relative to them - or the surroundings - when they execute it. Test your dog’s acuity (and therefore your training skills) by asking your dog to sit when he’s beside you, behind you, when he can’t see you, etc. It’s a fun way to gauge how much he relies on certain things in order to understand the cue (this is “proofing the behavior”). If you have a dog who is conditioned to get treats only from in front of you, he may move his body to face you in order to receive that treat for the simple reason that that’s where treats are usually delivered. Feed him in the position you want to reinforce. Where do you want his mouth? Feed him there. Do lots of reps and be generous.
Other Positions are Useful, too
There are many positions we want our dogs to learn besides sitting in front of us. What if, instead of rewarding your dog in front of you, you generously offered him treats as he’s standing beside you? That’s heel position. [TIP: use a wall or another barrier to help “sandwich” your dog between you and the barrier to encourage a close heel]. We first want our dogs to gravitate to that location at our side, much like he learns to loiter at the foot of a toddler’s highchair.
Recall (“Come all the way here, please”)
Our pups are calculating geniuses when it comes to knowing how long our arms are. When we need to leash them up, they may joyfully flit about just out of reach. How to address this? Make sure the anticipated reward is delivered, literally, at your feet. As always, practice any new skill in a non-distracting space. Call your pup to you and as he’s arriving (not after), scatter a handful of small treats at your feet. Repeat. You can feed him his meal this way! After consistent practice and good training, he will come all the way to you. By dropping the treats on the floor, he will lower his head and stay busy while you secure him.
To summarize, make note of how you are delivering rewards to your dog, whatever they may be, and what position your dog is in when you do so. We can strategically strengthen a variety of useful positions and behaviors simply through thoughtful reward placement.