Atta Boy!

The Key to Meaningful Rewards


We take great satisfaction and enjoyment in rewarding our pets.

As owners, we enjoy giving rewards – there is something satisfying in it for us as well. But do we understand what these rewards are telling our dog? What do our dogs really understand from pats, treats and rewards?

In the last issue of Shamu Quarterly we learned about how penalties and corrections work in the dogs’ mind. With no less importance, rewards and praise should be understood by dog owners.

Rewards, praise, penalties and punishment are the feedback we give our pets. When they do something we like we reward or praise them. If they do something we don’t like we correct or punish them. Your rewards and corrections are shaping your pet’s behavior.

This is a sort of “synthetic” version of the reactions and counter-reactions that an animal would get in the wild. Good behavior in the wild, such as clever hunting, sharp defensive skills, etc, are rewarded with better survival. Poor performance in the wild decreases the animal’s potential to survive. Rewards are a very strong influence on your dog’s behavior.

What Is a Reward?

A reward is anything that the dog finds pleasant or which helps or promotes his survival – or even something that merely reminds him of these things. A rattling leash and collar remind him of the walk, which is something pleasant. The smell of food reminds him of the survival instincts to eat.

In your dog’s mind, a reward is often connected with things of which we might not be aware. It is your dog’s perception and past experiences that make something good. If you’ve used the car to drive him to the vet, a car ride might not be perceived as something pleasant regardless the fact that you intend to drive him to the beach for a day of fun.

Your dog’s name is associated – hopefully! – with positive things. In his mind, the sound of his name should be connected to pleasant things like being called for dinner or being patted. The mere action of addressing your dog – giving him any attention at all – is positive. You are acknowledging his existence, and for this, he is happy. This is the reason why a dog’s name should not be used if he is punished. To say, “Fido, bad boy!!” connects the sound of his name with the negative circumstances of being punished. In your dog’s mind “Fido” starts to mean “uh oh, something bad is about to happen to me – run away!”.

Things that equate to survival for your dog or are part of his innate make up are also rewards. Playing with toys, chasing and retrieving balls and rewards of food are all aligned to your dog’s survival instincts. They are pleasant and fulfilling for him and are therefore rewards.

In a very deep way, the attention you pay to your dog is considered by him to be a reward. Looking at your dog is a reward; saying his name is a reward; even a light touch or stroke would be considered a fabulous reward.

The Intentional Reward

By consciously rewarding certain actions, we can shape the our dog’s behavior.

Looking at rewards from a strictly clinical viewpoint, here is perhaps an unpopular but factual way to look at rewards. Your dog is motivated by a continuous line of avoiding negative consequences and seeking out positive ones. Every action will result in a positive, negative or absent reaction. The negative reactions are avoided at all cost. The positive ones are repeated. The absence of any positive feedback and a behavior will eventually disappear. A reward, even randomly handed out by ourselves or the environment, will encourage a behavior.

Rewards of food can be used in obedience training in several ways. During the beginning phase of training we teach a posture (such as sit, heel, down) and reinforce the command with food. Lowering a tidbit between the dog’s front feet will coax him into crouching, and with a little nudging on our part, into the down position. Raising a treat above the dog’s head will cause him to sit in order to keep his eyes on the prize. Presenting a treat while we take a walk will educate the dog into paying attention to us, rather than less interesting things in his environment. In this case we are using a reward (food) to bait and bribe the dog into assuming a posture.

In the later phases of training food (or treats, or pats or toys) are used as a reward for successfully complying with our command. The dog is asked to sit, and when he does so, he is acknowledged for this behavior with a reward.

In these cases, and in the case when we want to isolate, acknowledge and promote any behavior, we are using rewards intentionally.

For the intentional reward to work it must be instantaneous. The reward must occur at the exact moment the dog begins to fulfill the command. If the reward comes too late, the dog is rewarded for the wrong thing. How could this be? Well, lets say that just after he sits he starts thinking about how nice it would be to chase the neighbors cat right now. Then you go a reward him for this thought. Oops. The neighbors cat is depending on you to time your rewards exactly.

For the intentional reward to have power, it must be something that is truly pleasant or satisfying for the dog. If the reward of food is being used, the dog should not have just eaten. If a toy is being used, the dog should not already be tired.

There are degrees of rewards. A reward can be something good or something wow! Really GREAT! Your dog can tell the difference in these degrees of rewards. Let’s say that we are teaching our dog to sit. As we go through the motions of teaching the command the dog begins to sit fairly quickly, fairly straight and gives us pretty good attention but we reward him with an over the top reward. As we progress through the training he begins to fill up on treats. Their charm is working less on him now as he gets a full stomach. They begin to lose their impact, but all the while he is beginning to sit faster, straighter and more attentively. Uh oh. He’s being rewarded less for doing a better job. We should have started out with smaller treats and worked our way up to better and larger rewards as his performance improved.

The Unintentional Reward

As owners it will help to understand the effect our rewards have on the behavior of our dog. Yes, you might think you’re giving an indiscriminate reward for Fido just for being himself or looking cute, but your dog understands these rewards differently. He understands them as the result of his actions. Bad behavior can be promoted by giving rewards or praise at the wrong time.

Max, the German Shepherd, was a beautiful and loving dog. He was madly in love with his owners, who loved him back just the same. Well, almost the same.

The difference (and the reason I was called in to help) was that Max couldn’t help himself but to jump up on his owners whenever he got the chance. As a big, lanky and powerful dog, he often sent his owners crashing onto their bottoms, literally bowling them over with his exuberant affection.

Tried what they may, they were not able to teach Max not to jump on them. With a young child in the house, it was becoming dangerous and needed to stop. The first thing I noticed was that each time Max jumped on his owners, he was being unintentionally rewarded. He was getting himself closer to them – which was a reward in itself. The reaction of his owners was to push him down (thus putting their hands on him – which he loved!). They also became excited and yelled for him to get down (which, in Max’s mind, was the great reward of being spoken to and having his name called). That meant that for each time Max jumped – no matter what the owners did to stop him – the behavior was reinforced, strengthened and promoted.

The first thing we did to resolve this problem was to teach Max to sit. For a week during our morning training sessions we taught him sit for everything that he wanted: food, praise, toys, a walk. Max quickly learned that the key to getting anything enjoyable was to sit.

Next we removed all unintentional rewards for jumping. There are many techniques for teaching a dog to refrain from jumping, but in Max’s case, we used a combination of turning our back on him when he jumped, remaining silent and ignoring his attempt to get our attention. Because his jumping behavior was no longer being unintentionally rewarded, it began to diminish on its own. But there was more to be done.

Max’s jumping behavior was an attempt to greet his owners. It was a communication, a display of affection and no one wanted Max to get the idea that he wasn’t loved. So, we incorporated sitting into his routine of greeting people. He had learned that his sit was a way to get what he wanted in all other circumstances so it was easy for him to understand that the sit was also a key to being acknowledged and to have his affection returned. He learned that we he sat before his owners they would make a fuss over him but squatting down to his level and praising and rewarding him. Within days Max’s greeting behavior went from jumping to politely (albeit excitedly) sitting. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

Within a few weeks I was called back and found that Max was jumping again. Max’s owners complained that Max, the “stubborn” dog, had suddenly gone back to jumping up on them again. Each time he greeted them with a jump they correct him for his behavior but by the very next day, the “dumb” dog would be jumping up on them again.

The reason for this regression was a mystery to me. Up to this point, I had scheduled all of my lessons with Max for the cooler morning hours. But on this particular day I visited Max in the afternoon. Frustrated by his continued jumping, I was sitting in the family’s front yard when Max suddenly ran over to and jumped up on the fence. Within moments, a line of at least 50 children just let out of school trotted down the sidewalk passing in front of Max. Almost all 50 children gave Max a cheery hello and pat on his head as they passed by. Some even fed him their left-overs from lunch. Max, jumping up on the fence, was getting rewarded and praised for his behavior 50 times a day, Monday through Friday!

After this discovery, the owners decided to keep Max in the backyard during the next week. Sure enough, his jumping behavior disappeared and he was back to sitting for his greetings and his intentional rewards. When the backyard was made Max’s permanent afternoon dwelling, jumping permanently disappeared as a behavior.


Rewards are anything that your dog considers pleasant or fulfilling.
Don’t underestimate the power of your voice and touch as a reward to your dog. One touch is worth a million dollars to your dog.
Rewards are always being associated with behavior. Step back and look at how rewards are shaping good (or even bad) behavior.
An intentional reward should be delivered instantaneously and with the appropriate amount of power, while increasing in quality in proportion to correctness of behavior.
All unwanted behaviors are being rewarded, even if unintentionally. Watch for the unintentional rewards that are reinforcing your dog’s bad behaviors.

There is a lot to know about the subject of rewards and penalties. I hope I have been able to explain some of the basics of how these two tools can be used to improve your dog’s behavior and that you will use them to give yourself the reward of a well behaved dog.



Copyright © 2012 by Patrick Bundock. All rights reserved.