As dog trainers we all know that reinforcement (reward) builds behavior. “Reinforcement” can spawn deep discussions about primary reinforcement, secondary reinforcement, conditioned reinforcement, negative reinforcement, schedules of reinforcement, non-reinforcement markers, etc. Setting aside all that complexity…there are a few simple principles that can vastly improve your dog training in agility. The first is understanding what your dog finds reinforcing (rewarding). Be a good observer of your dog’s response to what you are offering as a reward and only use what your dog wants when building behaviors. Read more about this in the post “First Principles Thinking – Reinforcement Builds Behavior”.
Another powerful principle is placement of reinforcement. Do I want the reinforcement to be delivered while the dog is stationary or while the dog is moving? Do I want the reinforcement to come when I am close to my dog or when I am far away? Do I want the reinforcement to be associated with driving to me or associated with completion of an obstacle? Ask yourself… is the placement of reinforcement supporting what I’m teaching the dog?
So, assuming your dog finds the rewards you are offering valuable, think about where you are placing the reward! If I’m teaching my dog to stay in a down position, I will deliver the food very low and possibly on the floor between his feet. By contrast, if I deliver the food above his head, he is going to lift up to get the food. If I want to teach my dog to be independent in the weave poles, I will deliver the reinforcement on the ground at the end of the poles. By contrast, if I deliver the reinforcement from my hand, I will encourage the dog to never take his eyes off me while in the poles because that is where he’ll get his reward. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? With some thought and practice it can become second nature and will vastly improve your dog’s understanding.
Here is a short video of a training session with my youngster Nick showing how I used placement of reinforcement in three areas on this short course. Happy Training!