Reward Stations for Better Training

A common misunderstanding about reward-based training is the belief that dog owners will have to carry treats “all the time.” But the beauty of reward-based training is that, unlike special collars, squirt bottles, and other aversive methods, you can train your dog without having anything in your hand. Heck, you can train your dog while completely naked (although I don’t recommend doing so outside your home).

Reward stations are small containers placed throughout your house – especially near problem areas where training is needed the most, like the front door, back door, kitchen, etc. Filled with small, crunchy rewards, you can access these treats anytime you catch your dog doing something right.

This is where using a verbal marker really comes in handy. Markers (a.k.a. reward markers) are specific words or sounds that let your dog know the INSTANT they earned a reward. They are not, as some people believe, sounds that tell your dog what to do – those are cues, not markers.

Here’s an example of how a reward station can come in handy:

Let’s say you are sitting on your couch, reading a book. You aren’t wearing a treat bag, your dog isn’t on leash, and you don’t have a clicker in your hand. Suddenly, you look up to see the mail carrier heading up your driveway. Normally, your dog loses his mind. But this time, he spots the mail carrier, then looks back at you! All you have to do, is say, “YES!” the instant he looks at you, then walk over to a reward station and pull out a treat.

Your dog learns that the behavior is rewarding even when you don’t look like you’re in training mode.

I LOVE my clever client’s idea of hanging small buckets around the house, as shown in the photo (I’m incredibly jealous that I didn’t think of it). It keeps the treats out of the dogs’ reach and they were so subtle, I didn’t immediately notice them when I walked in.

You can even create reward stations on walks. I know some trainers who stash really fabulous stuff in trees on their route before a training walk, then randomly practice calling their dogs or other behavior, marking “YES!” and producing bits of hamburger or other amazing rewards from their hiding place. You want your dog to respect you? Make food magically appear from trees!

So, you don’t have to carry treats or a clicker “all the time.” You can capture and reward good behavior without always wearing a treat bag or living with crumbs in your pockets.

If your dog won’t respond to your cues unless you have food, get the food off of you. Set a bowl of treats on a table, fence, or other area during your training session, and don’t reach for it until after you mark the behavior. If your dog doesn’t respond to the cue at all, it’s time to revisit the basics to make sure there aren’t any gaps in her learning.

Skilled use and placement of reinforcement means that food isn’t used to get good behavior, but to reward behavior that has already happened.

BUTS

“But my dog just sits and stares at the bucket.”

This is a behavior you can just ignore and wait for it to extinguish on its own. If you don’t respond, your dog will learn that YOU decide when the food comes out of the bucket.

“But my dog figured out that if he sits/spins/shakes/speaks, I’ll get up and get him a treat, and now he won’t stop!”

This is where setting criteria is important. Which behaviors do you reward when your dog offers them, and which do you only reward on cue? If you didn’t ask your dog to shake, you might not want to get up and reward him when he THWAKS you in the face with his paw. But if he runs to his mat and lies down when the doorbell rings without you giving a cue, you
probably want to reward that.

Remember, you get what you reward. Your dog decides what is rewarding, but you decide what to reward!

“But I have bugs/cats/ghost dogs who would eat the treats if I kept them like that!”

Get creative. Anything with a lid will work just as well. Mason jars can easily be adapted to hang from a hook. Tupperware-like containers. You can also just keep the treats in a sealed plastic bag in the bucket. If you’re marking the behavior when it happens, you have plenty of time to open a bag or container stashed nearby.

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