Skills Practice: Distraction or Reward? Both!

Certified dog trainers are asked by clients – how do I get reliable behaviors? There is no single answer to this question. One of the training methods for reliability that I incorporate very quickly when training pet dogs is using distractions as rewards.

A reward doesn’t reinforce a behavior unless the reward has value to the dog. A training reward is anything of value to the dog. Food, toys, treats, praise, and play are the most commonly used in dog training. Primarily because these rewards are easy for the handler to control.

The bane of any dog owner’s existence is the squirrel running up the tree, the cat streaking across the street, the stinky patch of overturned earth, deer poop…distractions, those things that keep your dog’s attention away from you and on the environment. The beautiful thing about dog training is that these 2 groups, distraction and reward, have a significant amount of overlap. The skill involved here? Targeting the distractions that are also rewards, then narrowing that pool to rewards that are controllable by the handler. If you’re interested in becoming a certified dog trainer, this is a valuable skill to develop.

Some simple and frequently used examples of distractions that are also used as rewards:

1. “Go sniff” that stinky patch of ground.
2. “Say hello” to that friendly person or dog.
3. “Go play” with that dog you just left alone when I called you to me.

Consider your daily walks, play time in the yard, and shared time in the house. What distractions can you use as rewards? If it’s safe, there is a way for you to control access to the distraction, and it’s something of value to your dog, you can make it into a reward!

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