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Placement of Rewards

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If you want beautiful heeling, there’s something you need to know.

It’s more important than your reward structure.  It’s more important than verbal markers or clickers.  It’s more important than throwing corrections into your training.

It’s where your dog receives the reward for their work, regardless of the quality of that work. Where that reward process starts and where it ends.  It’s perfectly fine to reward a dog that is out of position; just make sure that the reward placement makes them more likely to be correct the next time.  And dont’ mark the incorrect work; just reward in a manner that fixes the mistakes.  Dog is lagging?  Throw the toy straight ahead.  It’s ok if you throw when they’re still lagging; they’ll get better and better even if you do nothing else.

Many trainers believe it’s not important -that as long as you mark a behavior with a “yes” or a clicker then you can give the reward anywhere you want.

They’re wrong.  It’s as simple as that.  You see, I used to believe that too; all that mattered was the marker – the “yes” or the “click”.  Then I battled a forging problem for a few years, until a pet dog trainer suggested that I change the placement of my reward.  I wasn’t  inclined to listen to her (“just” a pet dog trainer),  but to be polite I decided to give it a try.

It worked in a matter of days.  She was right.  I hate it when other people know things that I should know.

Markers are nice, but placement of reward is far more important.  This is brought home to me every single time I teach a seminar or train a dog in a private lesson.  If I could have either a marker OR excellent reward placement, I would take reward placement, hands down.

The rest of this blog is specifically for Gretchen and her wrapping, forging, crabbing Rottie.  Gretchen, once we change the position of your reward in heeling, you will stop tripping over your dog in a matter of days.

The reward must be given in a position that inconveniences the dog if they are out of position.  Forging?  reward behind.  Crabbing, reward to the dog’s left.  Wrapping?  Behind and to the left.  This technique works for all training, not just heeling, but today I’m going to demonstrate heeling.

Almost all of my own dogs will develop a tendency towards these sorts of problems – it’s normal and typical of dogs that are trained in drive.  They like the game.  They want to watch your face.  They want to see the toy you are holding.  So they get closer and closer to it – I doubt they even know they are doing it.  If I lose vigilance for any period of time then these problems will come back, so correct reward placement never ends.

Here’s a video of correct reward placement for a dog prone to wrapping, crowding and forging.  I also do specific moves in heeling which help Lyra learn to control her body, but this blog isn’t about that today, though it is certainly demonstrated in the video.  This blog is about rewarding her position.  You’ll notice Lyra’s position is pretty good; not perfect but on the way to being both accurate and pretty.

The first minute or so demonstrates reward position when I use a tug – I have her spin away from me before she gets the toy.  The second part demonstrates reward position when I throw the toy – to her left and slightly behind.  If she were seriously crabbing, I’d change the position of the reward to be further back, so she’d have to turn even harder to the left to get the toy.

If I were using food the same principles would apply.  Feed where you want the dog’s head – high up and on the OUTSIDE of the head, if your dog is likely to wrap.  Or throw the food.  Behind, to the side, or both.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

30 responses »

  1. The excellent book Agility Right From the Start makes good use of this principle. Yes, your dog CAN learn without it, but as the authors point out, you will get double mileage frm your treats/toys if you reward where you want the dog to focus, & their specifics translate well to obedience. I taught Lia to do go-outs very quickly by using their Aim For It, first capturing looking straight ahead, clicking, & rewarding a couple of steps ahead. I reccommend the book to anyone who wants to explore these ideas.

  2. Barb VanEseltine

    Denise — I want to love this video because I agree that placement of reward is hugely important. Maybe even more so in agility than obedience. However, it is difficult or impossible to see what you’re doing. I think one of the kids needs to consider a part-time job as your videographer. Just a suggestion. 🙂

  3. Trainers who don’t deliberately use thoughtful placement of rewards are missing out on a lot!

  4. Thanks Denise. I found this post very helpful.

  5. Thank you Denise!!! 🙂 🙂

    I see a lot that I can implement in your video. Hopefully when we see you in April, our heel position will be greatly improved! 🙂

    Here’s a follow-up question for you: for dogs who get REALLY excited about toys, and who get to a mental level of less clear thinking (i.e. kids at the amusement park), is it better to work on re-teaching the position using a lower motivator (food), and then once correct position is established, go back to toys, being exquisitely careful of position of reward? I hope you understand what I’m try to ask, I just re-read that 3x and it seems bungled.

  6. Ditto thank you Denise You’re also addressing Esprit’s wrapping. Like Gretchen and Fizz we’re not yet there with the toy (think major candy store with Esprit ).

    BTW I attended a workshop with Kamal Fernandez last year and he demonstrated very clearly how important proper placement of reward is.

    Another follow up question: When do you ask your dog “somewhat nice heeling” when the decoy is on the field? I work on it in the distance and we get closer it feels like major candy store again (the others pinch their dogs’ ears or illegally use prongs).

    Do send me a private email for those heeling classes (in hopefully dry weather).

    • I have always found attention heeling easy around distractions becuase they know the game – do what I ask and get the bite The problem I have is with transport heeling – the idea of looking at the decoy and staying in position hurts their brains.

      • True that was my experience with my other two IPO/Mondioring dogs. But Esprit is quite the clown and frankly I have no concept with his heeling – shame on the handler 😉 Tried hand targeting and then got told to get rid off my hand and now I am having a “headache” 😉

      • Yes, I had ‘wrapping the decoy’ issues on side transport. For rear transport (and attack on handler), we taught “your bite only comes out of sit” and we’d heel a pattern, somewhere have a halt, and then send. The ONLY place she saw attack was in trial and we never lost one point on forging in that transport. Worked like a charm! 🙂

      • We recently started working on the side transport with my young girl so I am learning non-traditional ways to do it. I am rewarding her with a tug that I am presenting near the helpers shoulder. So placement of reward has them looking at the helper (not you) and up towards their face (not the sleeve). They never get a bite from the helper in a trial so they really do not need to get one in training – that’s usually what encourages the wrapping of the helper as that is where the sleeve is and where they get the bite.

      • @Heather: They do that too where I train except the decoy is holding a Kong in his fist (so no lure) and rewards the dog by throwing the Kong.

  7. Excellent and very timely information for me. But…this makes my back hurt just reading it…I am training a toy dog to heel and rewarding in the right place involves a strenuous reach to not change my body too much and confuse him. Off to do sit ups I go.

  8. This has been my experience over hte last year or so, too. Working on clients’ forging dogs, mostly, but some lagging dogs too, the reward placement is the only thing that *really* fixes it. Precision heeling class, here I come. 🙂

  9. I think you might be onto something. Maybe I should pay more attention to the placement of rewards. It would be great to see a video with a dog lagging and heeling wide, I kind of imagine how to reward, but it would be nice to see.

  10. please send the link to the heeling precission class.

  11. pauline hosenfeld

    thanks for posting this, Denise. Helps me think about how to apply reward placement to around finishes with my pup, Chase, who either lands at my side too far back if he is thinking too hard (worrying about getting it right) or he will land too far forward with his butt out. Would love the online heeling course!

    • What about wide heeling? We seem to get some progress with addressing lagging, but Spyker still heels too wide. He starts out right and then wanders off to the left…

  12. Ditto thank you for yet another excellent video. The timing is also perfect for where I am with Alphonse.
    The reward placement for Lyra reflect the her tendencies/position earlier in training, right?

  13. I’ve been more consistent with where we are heeling to make sure I can throw the ball behind and not ahead since reading this. I believe it is helping, amazing how small changes can make differences, and how I forget to incorporate them once I fall into a “routine”. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Lynnda L in Mpls

    Early on in instructing agility, the dogs taught me the significance of where the handler rewards. I believe operant conditioning pioneer Bob Baily [think of training ocean swimming dolphins for the military]has a saying: “click for action, Reward for position”. U rock Denise!
    Lynnda L in Minneapolis

  15. Not sure why people think you can mark a behavior and not give a primary infocement right away. I have trained exotics at Busch Gardens for 33 years and have use operate conditioning and a clicker as a machanical bridge since 1977. The bridge is to mark that moment in time that the desired behavior is offered followed up by your primary reinforcer. The clicker is a secondary reinforcer. Offering primary as soon as you click is very important until the animal is ready to start using a variable schedule of reinforcement.
    There are so many people using clickers that really have not had enough training, and then end up training a different behavior. I have seen it many times when training people in the zoo field as well as search and rescue.
    What happens when your timing is off and, or not being able to move beyond what you are curently doing to the next step soon enough. ( shaping the behavior ) is that you get sloopy behavior, ( Dogs breaking sit, heal, sitting on target scent, what ever. ) So don’t put down the clicker because it is still a useful tool as it was when B. F. Skinner invented it in 1937.
    It like most things in life are only as good as the person using it. If used correctly you would be rewarding over the correct position.

  16. Let me also add that Skinner did not invent the clicker, but did invent operate conditioning and the use of a mechanical bridge. For the purest out there.


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