Reward Placement & Delivery
As my understanding of training has continued to evolve over the years, the biggest development that I see surrounds the delivery of the reward. Everything from where the reward is located, to the marker cues used to communicate to the dog, to how that reward is actually delivered to the dog.
There are SO many pieces in there that can be played with that can have a massive impact on the actual behavior you are trying to change!!!
When I first started training it was pretty much
Behavior- Mark- Reward
Well actually I'm not sure how much that "mark" was consistent and paid attention to in terms of not being overshadowed by the movement of my hand to deliver the cookie!
But very little focus was paid to the reward delivery sequence. It was understood that the timing of the mark was everything. What happened after the click didn't really matter much. The click ended the behavior was a mantra that was repeated often. And while that doesn't have to be wrong, our focus purely on that moment had us blind to how powerful the reward sequence actually is in effecting the behavior itself.
This is how I look at behaviors now:
It's not just dog does the behavior and I deliver the reward; but it greatly matters:
1. Where that reward is located. Ex: in my right pocket, behind the dog on the ground...
2. The path that the reward itself takes from where it was kept to getting to the dog's mouth, and/or the dog's path he has to take to get that reward. Ex: pass the reward behind your back from your right hand to your left hand, or dog spins left and turns behind you to move towards the reward....
3. The actual delivery of the reward and how the dog is getting it. Ex: at my pants seam with the dog's head up high and turned out, or at my arm pit with the dog jumping up in a parallel position to me, or running to grab the reward on the ground in front of them or behind them....
And like many trainers now, I'm also focusing on using different marker cues to tell the dog all this information on where that reward is that he is being cued to get, and what that reward is!
I can even play with the energy the dog is giving me by changing either what the reward is- food vs toy- or the manner in which I deliver it. There's a huge difference in what the behavior will look like if I have the dog wait while I walk up to deliver their cookie vs having them send to the reward already on the ground vs having them chase the reward that I am about to throw!
I put a ton of emphasis on those 3 reward parts in my training and I see that behaviors not only develop faster, but fixing behaviors can oftentimes be done purely through changing how I reward vs changing anything with training the behavior itself!
Let's look at 2 opposite problems in heel position and see how changing the reward sequence in different ways can effect how the dog sits in heel position:
Example- Heel Position Crabbed/Wrapped
This is one of the most common problems I see in obedience training-
a dog in heel position who starts to crab their butt out and wrap their head around the front of their handler's leg. The handler typically has their treats in their right hand, but really it is just as common with treats in the pocket/bait bag! Let's look at how we can focus on #2 and #3 in the reward sequence to try to fix this issue!
#2- Usually the treats are passed from the right hand to the left hand in front of the body. Many dogs have intense excitement, and even if you use a "room service marker cue" where the dog knows to wait in heel position, there is the excitement of watching the cookie come towards them. In this case, watching the cookie travel in front of your body can have the dog thinking those forging/wrapping thoughts in the behavior itself (heel position) as naturally dogs want to be closer to the reward.
One way to get by this is to pass the cookie behind your back. Reach behind your back with your left hand and grab the cookie from your right hand. This way the path the reward takes is behind your dog!
If you're using treats/toys at a distance, you could try a slightly less precise reward path by having the dog turn to their left (to compensate for wanting to turn right to be in front!) and chase a cookie/toy that is either thrown behind from your right hand or is already on the ground behind them!
#3- The gravest error you can make in training heel position is to actually feed in front of your body! (This is less likely to happen if you do the behind the back pass!) But where the dog eats is the most important part of the reward sequence. For this issue, you at minimum want to feed in perfect heel position!
But we can also try to exaggerate what we want when the dog is making an error. In this case with the dog crabbing/forging/wrapping, I would want to feed slightly behind heel position, and feed with the dog's head up high and turned away from me. This head turn out and slight lag position will be the opposite of the error the dog is making.
Here is Bees and whose mom is doing a great job focusing on these aspects of the reward delivery when training her pivot work! You can see on the first rep how Bees' head is curled in front of her body, and how with future reps she's expecting to be fed slightly further back!
Example- Heel position lagged/wrapped behind!
Let's look at another quick example of how we can switch the mechanics to work on the opposite issue- a dog who tucks their butt too far behind their handler on setups/pivots and might be lagged! While this is less of an issue with newer handlers, I find it can be a common one for dogs who really know their pivoting skills well!!
#2- This time because the dog is too far back, you would want the reward to come from in front of the dog!
#3-Similarly, you can feed in the exact position where most trainers harp on students not to feed! Feed in front of your leg, even pulling the dog out to a crabbed position!
Here is an example with Zumi working on this with her left pivots. This was not her first session using this reward placement and it's almost hard to see how she was very prone to tucking her butt behind me. I draw her forward with each reward and because she wasn't always behind me, this can cause her to look crabbed out! That's ok!! You can/should always reevaluate your training plan if you see the dog actually start to make the opposite errors before you mark/reward!!
Training Plans to Override Reward Delivery
Being smart about our reward delivery systems is very important to developing behaviors and upholding them over the long run!
But sometimes we can't always deliver in the most optimal location.
I want to develop a training plan that teaches my dog how to do the correct behavior despite of bad reward locations or in spite of the reward intensity being too high/too low, etc.
Does the dog really know how to do the behavior no matter where the reward is located or how it will be given?
I do a lot of "zen hand" work with this where the reward is held out in various locations that the dog can easily see, and I wait for focus on me. Look away from the reward and focus in order to get the reward.
The same thing should be done if you are using a "zen bowl" where the reward is on the ground that the dog is sent to. Can the dog look at you and focus until hearing that maker cue to send to their dish/toy?!
Here is an example of Vito working on zen hand in heel position from all different angles:
And here is an agility example with the reward located at a distance. I want to see can Zumi still do the weave poles AND focus on my handling with her reward out front. The answer at first was no! She was able to not grab the ball, but that forward focus she had due to the ball being out there meant she failed twice in taking the jump ahead vs turning with me. I had to remove the jump and gradually bring it back to help her: