Introducing Verbal Praise and Touch as Rewards

I’m sure like me many of you start training with food as a reward then gradually fade it’s use, continuing to randomly reward with food to reinforce t

Rewards: what they mean to your dog!!!

I’m sure like me many of you start training with food as a reward then gradually fade it’s use, continuing to randomly reward with food to reinforce the chosen behavior. It’s common that dog owners replace food or toy reward with physical or verbal praise as they progress with their dog’s training. They hope that a pat on the head or ‘good boy/girl’ will replace the food or toy.

So why do dog owners want to transfer from food or toys to other forms of praise?

Well there’s a few reasons so let’s take a look at them.

1. Don’t want to always have to carry food or toys on a walk

2. May forget toy or food and need to use other rewards

3. May run out of food rewards on a walk

4. Want to build and maintain susceptibility to a larger number or rewards

5. Add variety and flexibility to your training.

If you decide to swap these its important to remember that for some dogs physical contact maybe unwanted. Some dogs just aren’t the cuddly type, others can be nervous and hands reaching to pat them on the head is scary. They could be one of those dogs that love to snuggle on the couch but find it punishing when they are training and in a heightened state of arousal.

It’s important to remember that just because your dog finds something rewarding in one situation doesn’t mean they’ll find it rewarding in every situation. You might enjoy a nice cup of coffee after your dinner in the evening but if you’d just come back from a five mile run you probably wouldn’t want a hot cup of coffee or find it enjoyable.

Make a list of some things you enjoy as a treat or reward and then think of times when you wouldn’t find these rewarding. Once you’ve done that it will be easier to recognize and remember why your dog’s preferences suddenly seem to vary: context is very important!!!

If you are going to use physical/tactile praise make sure it’s something your dog enjoys. Consider starting by touching their side or chest rather than the top of the head. In general dogs tend to prefer touch on their chest, shoulders and side rather than the top of their head but remember every dog is different and one size definitely does not fit all! Simply watching your dogs reactions wen you touch them in different places is a great starting point. You can also introduce the consent test to make sure your dog enjoys the physical contact you are offering. We let our dogs decide if they want to eat a treat and this is a way to make sure they enjoy the physical contact.

Then there’s verbal praise: some dogs really enjoy praise and seeing you smile but there are some that visibly deflate when they hear ‘good boy/girl’ knowing that means no food reward is forthcoming. Have you ever noticed this with your own dog?

Dogs can quickly begin to associate physical or verbal praise negatively as it is associated with no toy or food reward. It’s the opposite of what we want!!!

Do you see a behavior decreasing or the speed your dog responds to a cue reducing when you change to verbal praise? If you do it’s a clear signal that your dog finds the reward ‘punishing’ and you should rethink how you are rewarding your dog. Remember in dog training ‘punishment’ is simply anything that reduces a behavior: it doesn’t mean you are using pain or force.

So how do you transition from food/toy to verbal and physical praise? Or what do you do if you notice that your dog’s performance reduces when you switch rewards? The answer is pretty straightforward: take a step back and reintroduce the food or toy you were using.

When you are rewarding with food; praise and/or gently stroke your dog at the same time. If they prefer play then praise and/or gently stroke when playing tug and add verbal praise when your dog is retrieving their favorite toy. We want our dogs to build a positive association with the new rewards we are introducing and pairing them with something they already love is a great way to do this. In fact, I also do this when introducing new toys: so that the value of the existing toy is transferred to the new toy.

Now I hear you asking "When should I start this?" The answer is as soon as possible. Whether your are bringing home a puppy, older rescue dog or want to boost the value of verbal praise and physical contact with a long standing family member, start incorporating these as soon as possible (some dogs can be nervous about human contract and this should be worked on separately first. If you are unsure how to do this reach out to a trainer). Here’s a real life example from a walk with Ziva, my spaniel. She was in leisure mode (back clip harness so she doesn’t have to walk beside me) but chose to walk beside me. I started with verbal praise and randomly tossed a treat as well. Ziva loves verbal praise but she also knows that sometimes she gets paid twice, once verbally and then again with food. So for her verbal praise can actually be better than just a food reward. The food reward is just that but the verbal praise can also mean food may appear as well. There’s a degree of anticipation that can increase motivation and performance. It’s a fine line because sometimes we may go too long without the food reward and performance drops. So with everything training related you may need to work hard to find the sweet spot that’s right for your dog but when you find it, it really is worth all of the effort!!! I will also add that I will never solely go verbal praise or contact for rewards as it just is not sufficient for many dogs. I may use food less with well known behaviors but every so often they still get a food or toy reward for something simple and it really keeps the behaviors where I want them. Start reducing those rewards too quickly and you'll see a reduction in the behaviors you want as well. You wouldn't want to work for just a pat on the back or a 'well done' and neither does your dog.

Have you noticed a difference in your dog's responses when you change rewards?

If so I'd love to hear from you. Please share your experiences in the comments.