Column: When is a reward not a reward?

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In dog training its important we understand what a “reward” and what a “punisher” is and when to use them. They have an impact on whether or not a dog repeats a particular behaviour.

A reward is a desireable consequence to the individual. If they like the reward they are more likely to repeat whatever it was that earned it. It could be self rewarding. If the dog jumps up at the kitchen counter and he finds something tasty then he is more likely to look up there again. Or we can control the reward. Give the dog a piece of sausage for sitting when asked if he likes sausage then he is more likely to sit again when asked. Food is a primary reward but some dogs prefer praise, play, toys or life rewards like going for a walk. A punisher is something less desireable. If they don’t like it they are less likely to repeat whatever it was that earned it. It is not necessarily anything violent in the form of a lead jerk, electric shock collar or a slap etc (which I do not recommend). It is simply an aversive, something they want to avoid in a specific context. If you rub the dogs ears for sitting when asked and the dog really dislikes his ears being rubbed then it becomes a punisher ie. something he would like to avoid in this context. It can also be a punisher if we withhold something the dog wants. If they jump for our attention we should avoid touching them, saying anything and even eye contact. They are then less likely to jump up. It is not for us to decide what is a reward or punisher for our dog. What we use is determined by the dog. A bit like loving or hating Marmite, it’s an individual opinion. What may be reinforcing (or punishing) in one situation may not be what is desired (or less desireable) in another. My dog Tyler will take a biscuit for a behavior in the house but on a walk he will spit out a biscuit in the hope of a tennis ball. If you want a behavior repeating take note of what your dog finds rewarding!