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Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

This article was written by TOBALIE in cooperation with Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

Education and training includes the right reward. Because our animals show the behaviour which is worthwhile for them. With the “positive reinforcement” your animal gets something he wants for correct behaviour. The reward is a consequence that reinforces a behaviour.

Therefore you should train in a reward based way and avoid any aversive training methods!

What can I do wrong when rewarding?

The most common mistake is that humans are well-disposed towards rewarding, but the animal perceives the supposed reward as negative. So something positive can even have the effect of punishment. For example, one often observes stroking over the head instead of or after the treat. The animals usually show clear signals of appeasement and want to make us understand that they are uncomfortable. Watch your four-legged friend closely and find out what he really likes and what he doesn’t like.

If you indicate a reward, e.g. with the clicker or the handle in the treat bag, you should give it to your animal as well. So if you make a mistake (for example by confirming a behaviour too early or too late) it is not so bad to give a “wrong” reward, but to deceive your pet, because this confuses your pet and can lead to frustration.

Timing is also a big issue. Take care to confirm your pet at the right time. A clicker or marker word will help you confirm the exact timing of the desired behaviour and give you a few seconds to bring out the reward. Like a bridge between the behaviour and the reward. Basically, you have about one second to let your pet link your reaction to his behaviour. So this is where your speed is needed.

Pay attention to your darling

It is also a mistake not to reward desirable behaviour. On the one hand you should always give your animal attention and encouragement for desired behaviour, on the other hand you should pay attention to reward the right thing. An example is the call: You call your animal, it comes to you in a well-behaved manner and you demand a “seat”. What was it rewarded for? Right, for sitting down, not for coming here. If it does not get a reward for coming, it will soon question whether it is really worth coming to you when it is called.

Too much of a good thing. If you reward with a game, make sure it doesn’t get too wild and that your pet’s concentration goes down the drain. So if your treasure gets too involved, choose another reward.

Do not underestimate your attention. If your pet shows unwanted behaviour, a glance from you or a strict “out, no” can be rewarding. On the other hand, if your sweetheart lies well-behaved, you can say “fine” to encourage this behaviour. Because, if the animals are “eh well-behaved” we usually forget to pay attention to this.

What else can go wrong? The environment sometimes puts a spoke in our wheel. So it can happen that your darling is afraid of a loud bang, just when he has done something right. As a result, the behaviour has been “punished” and you probably have more work to do to positively rebuild this behaviour.

Which kinds of reward?

The list is long, basically everything your darling likes. A few suggestions:

  • Food: Treats of any kind, cheese, fruit, vegetables, exercise sausage, snack, chewing sticks, etc. (Please adjust the main food ration to the treats, i.e. less main food with many treats) Attention: Never let the complete food be worked out or leave your animal hungry. Your animal has the right to eat from the bowl at least once a day without being disturbed.
  • Play: Favourite toys, squeaking toys, soft or hard toys, tugging, playing with you, playing with conspecifics, retrieving objects, etc.
  • Environment: digging, sniffing, letting your pet go to a favourite place, permission to do what it wants, jumping into the water, running, swimming, chewing branches, increasing distance, etc.
  • You: caressing, verbal praise “well done”, contact lying, being allowed to jump on you, your attention, …
  • For hunting dogs you can find ideas here.
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Create reward list

Take some time and write down all the things your pet likes. Then sort the points according to their value. Write down the amplifiers your pet likes the most and work your way down to the point your pet likes the least.

Note: Some amplifiers are situation dependent. For example, your pet may love to cuddle up with you on the couch at home, but may not think much of stroking you during training.

Now you divide your list into three categories:

  • Category 1 – Basic Amplifiers: You can use these things for well-trained signals with little distraction. So if your pet finds it easy to perform your signals, you can reward him with amplifiers from this category.
  • Category 2 – Good Reward: These are amplifiers you can use for exercises that are not yet very well learned or under high distraction.
  • Category 3 – Jackpot Reward: These amplifiers are used when your pet is performing exceptionally well. For example, if your dog, who is motivated by hunting, was called by a game or your cat sends a signal even though a bird has just flown by.

How do you reward properly?

Now you know in which situations you should prefer which reward. Pay attention to the following things:

  • Proper timing.
  • Define target behaviour precisely: Only if you know exactly what you want, you can confirm the behavioral approaches and steps in the right direction.
  • Pay attention to value. Tip: Put yourself in your pet’s shoes and ask yourself how hard it was for your pet to show the behaviour.
  • Adapt the reward to the situation, the level of arousal and the performance. Consider which alternative meets the original need. If your pet was about to chase a rabbit, a dry treat from your hand is hardly convincing. A bag filled with good treats and then torn up and eaten is more likely to be the right choice for a chase.
  • Surprise effect: Your animal never knows what and how it gets the reward. For example, you can feed treats out of your hand, scatter them on the ground, have them searched or put them in a bag for hunting. (Varied and appropriately rewarded.)
  • Design the setting so that the animal can be successful. If you make it too difficult, you may reward less often and your pet may get frustrated. Adapt your training to the level of your pet.

Reward is a bribe?

No! What sometimes is meant by this is luring. This is where you hold the treat in front of your pet’s nose to get it to do the behavior you want. In principle, this is not a bad thing, however, your pet has a harder time understanding what to do because he is fixated on the “bribe”. Your pet gets the reward BEFORE the behavior. So it will show the desired behavior in the future via food motivation and possibly not without a treat in hand.

But what we want to do is reward/reinforce. In doing so, your sweetheart is intrinsically motivated, so shows the desired behavior on its own and is rewarded THEN. This reinforces the behavior and it will be shown more often in the future. So rewarding your cat/dog is something positive.

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What may look complicated at first glance is actually quite simple. Observe your darling and you will quickly find out his preferences. This way you will quickly see success. Positive training is motivating and is fun for you and your darling. It is worth it!