Malinois play with Meagan Karnes
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

Heel 10 steps forward. Reward with toy.

Play play play play play.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. X 5

Sit. Down. Stand. Reward.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. X 6, varying the order of the positions, but always rewarding on the third behavior.

Down. Reward.

Sit. Reward.

Down again. Reward.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. X 3

Toss toy and send to retrieve. Reward.

Heel 10 steps forward. Reward with toy.

Play play play play play.

The commands were executed at lightning speed. One after the other, after the other, after the other, with nice rough and tumble play between each.

When the short session came to a close, the handler was beaming, the dog having performed the commands with precision, knowing exactly what he needed to do to earn a good game of tug.

But within the span of 5 minutes, the dog had grown tired, his tongue long and heavy as it hung low, trying desperately to absorb any ounce of cool air around it.

“The thing is,” she looked over at me, “he’s great when I have the toy. But the moment I try to fade it, he checks out.”

She looked at me as her smile faded. She had been struggling with this for a while now.

“You simply aren’t pushing him.”  was my quiet response. “You need to go back to the 4-3-2 rule.”

One of the biggest struggles I see handlers face when they use motivation-based training is difficulty fading their reward. They struggle to get their dog unstuck from a lure, or they have a tough time getting their dog to stay focused with a toy out of sight. But what they fail to realize is that they were the ones who actually created the dependency in the first place.

In her book “Train your dog like a Pro”, world renowned trainer Jean Donaldson talks about her “Push, Stick, Drop” method whereby you train your dog in sets of 5.

She tells readers that if:

  • The dog gets 4 of 5 correct in a set, PUSH to the next level of difficulty.
  • It the dog gets 3 out of 5 correct, STICK where you are at, and repeat the same step again.
  • If the dog gets 2 or less correct drop to the previous, easier step.

The problem with too many trainers is that they forget to PUSH their dog – to ask for more. As a result, they continually reward the dog for the same behavior, day in and day out, until they create a dependency (and thereby completely obliterate the dog’s work ethic).

I always coach my clients that you need to make your training challenging enough to keep the dog engaged, but not so tough that they want to give up.

Keep it too simple, and your dog will become complacent.

Push it too fast, and your dog will quit or become frustrated.

Here are a few reasons why your dog might check out when you try to fade your reward:

  1. You took a leap – You may have jumped too far, too fast when adding difficulty. Don’t go from holding your reward under your arm while you heel, to expecting perfection for 20 paces with a visible reward off in the distance – that’s tough and you need to work your way up to it. Perhaps simply start by rewarding eye contact or your basic, static heel position without adding in so much movement to start. And maybe don’t put the toy so far away to start.
  2. You got stuck – You may have inadvertently created some dependency by sticking at one difficulty level for too long. You need to start PUSHING your dog.
  3. You jumped too soon – If your dog checks out, you may have jumped levels too soon, adding difficulty when your dog wasn’t quite ready. Take things back a step and give your dog some successes.
  4. You practiced for too long – Keep your sessions short, practicing each behavior a handful of times before switching things up, or breaking the session up with play. Your dog will easily get burned out if you push for 50 reps because you are determined to get it right.

Here are some things you can do to better manage your training sessions to prevent reward dependency:

  1. Push the Envelope
    Malinois Down Stay with Toy Distractions
    Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels of Heart Dog Studios

    Strategically add and subtract difficulty as your dog and your training dictates.If your dog already knows the down, you don’t need to reward him every time for laying down. Instead, increase criteria by moving into proofing, or add multiple known behaviors before delivering your reward.

  2. Don’t get stuck at a particular level – Rewarding too consistently at one difficulty level will result in a dog that is dependent on the reward. This leads to a dog that is more reluctant to “try” when things get tough, their work ethic declining as they are rewarded too steadily.
  3. Vary your reward delivery – If you feel like your dog has a particular behavior down, you can increase difficulty by changing up the way you reward. Always have the reward in sight? Try hiding it behind your back. Always drop the toy from your left hand? Try dropping it from your right. Or better yet, try delivering a toy from behind your back. You can also send your dog to get a remote toy off in the distance. Just remember, changing your delivery can be a bit confusing, so don’t be afraid to DROP your criteria the first few repetitions until your dog starts to get the hang of it.

If you are struggling with reward dependency, your patterns and reward structures may be to blame. In fact, you may have inadvertently made your training too easy, resulting in a complacent pooch with a poor work ethic.

Remember to push the envelope in your training. Have a plan for adding criteria and be sure to keep your sessions difficult enough to challenge your dog, but not so tough that your dog checks out. And play around with your reward delivery when you get to the proofing stage in training. Get yourself unstuck and ask your dog for more. And don’t be afraid to push or drop criteria, should your dog and training session dictate.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    3 replies to "Getting Unstuck: 4 Reasons You May be Struggling to Fade your Training Rewards"

    • Theresa

      I struggle greatly with this very thing, thanks for the tips!

    • Bob

      Ditto Theresa! Thanks for the insight!

    • Chris

      I think that’s part of what makes good training go beyond a skill to becoming an art, to know when to ask for more and when to ask for less. It really requires you understand your dog and and the training relationship you share.

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