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Photo by Tadeusz Lakota

What is a Real-Life Reward?

Everything that a dog likes during a normal day can turn into a reward for the behavior we want to reinforce. For example, when you ask your dog to offer a behavior before you open the door to the outside, the outside becomes the reward for whatever it is you are asking them to do.

There is no limitation on what can be called a real-life reward. Check with your dog what it is they want, crave, like, at any given moment, and make it a reward. Shamelessly use your dog’s motivation to your advantage. 

Suppose that your dog wants to get on the bed. She craves to enjoy the fluffiness next to you. You are about to say yes, but before that, you ask her to sit. You say ”sit”, she sits, and then you let her join you.

Or, when your dog wants to get rid of the leash and run to meet his friends and playmates at their favorite spot? He pulls hard, you are going to unleash him, but before that, you want him to stop pulling. You say “stop” or “stay”, your dog listens, and therefore he deserves to run to the rest of the gang. Freedom becomes the outcome of his cooperation.

Real-life-rewards is a concept that utilizes the principles of the positive reinforcement model of teaching. Positive reinforcement relies on the simple notion that dogs are more likely to repeat behaviors that associate with pleasant consequences. It works by rewarding a dog for offering behaviors that we, the handlers, want to encourage. The sequence of events is ”cue, response and reward”. Rewards include mainly food, but you can use praise, toys, games, etc.

Now replace the treat with the target of your dog’s desire, and you’ve got a real-life reward.

This has several benefits:

  • It is a natural and laid back way to teach a dog that working together with you has benefits. That listening to you leads to pleasure. (A recipe for a successful symbiosis with your dog.) In the example above, the dog will realize that pulling is not acceptable but also that not pulling will still get them to their goal. Eventually, they realize they don’t have to pull.
  • The dog learns to say please. In more realistic terms, good manners matter, and your dog is not an exception. Instead of pulling to get where they want, barking to convey their needs, or forcing their way through the door, dogs learn to respect you and the rest of your household. Attention-getting behaviors fade.
  • You establish your leadership by increasing your “worth” to the dog. You are the bearer of everything good and fun. Because if you think about it, you make it seem like everything comes from you. Didn’t I say shame on you?
  • You reinforce known behaviors. As time goes by, basic commands/cues, like ”sit”, ”come”, or ”stay” become part of the dog’s vocabulary. When you reach that stage, move on. Save your training devices for new commands, more serious tasks, or special cases. The thing is that old and established behaviors tend to extinct if not continuously reinforced. That’s where real-life rewards enter.
    With real-life rewards, you have the chance to reinforce these known behaviors by simply asking your dog to offer them before they get to go to the balcony/garden, get their new toy, or even before they enjoy their breakfast.
  • This way, you become independent of food as a reward. Real life rewards teach your dog that it is important to cooperate with you even when there is no food in the bag.
  • You make teaching part of your everyday life. Some dogs or their people do not have the required discipline to commit to formal training as part of their daily life. If you and/or your dog are one of them, the real-life-rewards-concept frees you from that ”pressure”.
    I don’t suggest you do all your training with real-life rewards. You can’t. Formal basic training (see positive reinforcement) should be a part of every dog’s life. Without it, you have nothing to base your dog’s progress on.

Key points and clarifications:

  1. Real-life rewards are not to replace food when we introduce new behaviors or tricks to a young dog. A treat should be the main reinforcer when the behavior and the cue that signals it are new to the dog. It is proved that nothing works as well as food. However:
  2. Following Premack’s principle, with real-life rewards you teach your dog to behave. Have you ever been asked to eat your beans before you eat your ice cream? Likewise, ask your dog to calm down (stop barking) before they get access to the outside. Show disapproval. Tell him to stop. Use a known cue like stop or a known cue like sit. When they stop or sit, tell them bravo and open the door to enjoy the outside as they wish. This will reward them for calming down. With time, they learn that they can enjoy whatever it is they want, but first, they need to cooperate.

    *See how handy ”sit” comes in?

  3. Asking for a dog’s compliance when they are about to do something they are excited about is not bound to succeed. However, ignoring a known cue (sit) should not be allowed. If you ask your dog to sit and the dog ignores you, do not give them what they want. Wait for 10 secs and repeat. Better check with your dog’s excitement levels before you even attempt it. If your dog can’t keep his cool, then lower your expectations.
  4. Real life rewards are the answer to “why do you want me to do this?” Even if they understand the reason, chances are that they won’t care. Dogs learn best by positive association. Show them that acting in concert is in their best interest.
  5. Final thought: Do not overdo it. Do not put training over your relationship with your dog. Do you ever see people obsessing over their dogs for not being fully responsive? I do, and I don’t recommend it. Like when your dog takes three minutes to be done with sniffing? Or when they forget about you for a moment while playing with their mates? Not responding when their dogness takes over should not upset you. Better put, interrupting those moments because you feel unheard is egoistical.

    Ask when asking makes sense to you and your dog. The rest of the time, just let them have it, whatever it is they want. Free stuff is part of life too.

Complete this post with your recommendation, insights, or questions. And if you feel like it, share with other dog people.

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