Reward the Effort! - McCann Professional Dog Trainers

Reward the Effort!

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re trying to teach your dog how to do something specific and for some reason they’re just not picking up on it or able to give you what you’re looking for? If so, there’s a possibility that you may be looking for too much too soon, and when your dog is not able to figure it out, they may lose the desire to try due to the lack of reinforcement. 

When we’re unable to communicate effectively with our dogs and help them to understand what we’re looking for, it can cause some dogs to simply lose interest and other, more sensitive dogs, to become stressed or shut down during the learning process.

It’s your job, as your dog’s trainer, to help them make sense of what you’re asking. That often involves breaking things down into the tiniest of steps. Rather than look for “finished product” right off the bat, think about how you can break the behaviour down into small, easily-achievable steps. Make a point of rewarding each of those tiny steps as you work your way to the end goal. 

In other words, reward your dog’s efforts! 

When you reward their efforts, you will motivate them to keep trying because they’re getting reinforced along the way.  They know they’re on the right track!

As you’re working your way through the process, don’t hesitate to go back a step or two if at some point your dog begins to struggle when you ask for more. By retreating to a step where your dog can be successful, you’ll help them to keep their head in the game and motivate them to keep trying.  Then, once your dog has had some success, gradually start to build on the tougher pieces again.

We find that people are often surprised by just how much they need to break things down for their dogs in the beginning.  Let’s start with a very simple behaviour: the sit. 

Dogs “know” how to sit.  Sitting is a behaviour that comes very naturally to them.  But, that doesn’t mean they understand how to sit on a cue from a human. We introduce the sit position with a food lure and it seems so simple:  just hold a treat somewhere above their nose and they’ll sit, right? 

Maybe they will! But what do you do if they don’t? You might need to break it down into smaller pieces to help them understand what you’re after.

Breaking down a sit position and rewarding each piece might look like this:

  • Start by rewarding them for simply sniffing the treat in your hand - they show interest, they get the treat! 
  • Progress to using a treat to encourage them to lift their nose up as they sniff at it.
  • Lure them to lift their nose up a bit higher. 
  • Withhold the treat until they’ve lifted their nose up and tilted their head back slightly.
  • Lure them to lift their head up and start to shift their body weight back. 
  • Withhold the treat until they’ve lifted their nose, tilted their head back, shifted their weight and started to lower their rear end toward the floor. 
  • Now you might wait for the finished product:  they’ve lifted their head, shifted their weight back and then planted their rear end on the floor. 

Be prepared for the fact that it might take several sessions of breaking down a behaviour and rewarding the steps before you can progress to simply asking for the finished product to reward.  As your dog becomes more and more clear as to what you’re looking for, you’ll start to see their responses get quicker and quicker. 

Speed comes confidence and confidence comes with understanding!

So, the next time your dog is struggling to learn something new, think about how you can break it down into manageable pieces and reward their efforts. It will not only help your dog to figure things out but it will also help them to become confident learners who are willing to keep trying. 

Remember that training is all about communication and it’s your responsibility as leader to be effective with your communication skills to build your dog’s understanding.

 Hi! I’m Robbie Stevenson and I started training at McCanns as a student in 1995 when I discovered my passion for dog (and human!) training. I joined the McCann team full time in 1997 and taught classes for 14 years. After moving away, I rejoined the team in 2020. I love writing about anything related to dog training as well as online learning after my own personal experiences as an online student studying horsemanship. I currently have 3 Border Collies (Spright, So & Scene) who keep me very active and busy with lots of fun activities!

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