My answer is OFTEN if you want good behaviours.
No matter what kind or age your dog is, the way they learn is that behaviours that are reinforced become strong. Our goal as dog parents and trainers is to be in charge of the reinforcers but as we know it is often very hard because we cannot control the environment. What we term as distractions are actually attractions to our dogs. When training good behaviours to dogs, first of all, we need to be in possession of high-quality rewards that the dog truly values. Second, the frequency with which we deliver them is extremely important, this is called a high rate of reinforcement. We all want that well-behaved dog who walks politely on leash, has a good recall, sits nicely to greet people and who doesn’t counter-surf, attention bark or nip us. But giving your dog one cookie a day for a nice sit is not enough to get that dog you are dreaming of.
Be pro-active and reward your dog for NOT being a jerk.
We humans as a species have a tendency to focus on the negative. Only after the dog jumps on us, lunges or barks we give them attention. Every time your dog has a chance to do these behaviours, they become stronger. If you don’t want your dog to do any of the above, yes you heard it right, you can reward your dog for not being a jerk! This is something that we have started doing in our Life Skills and Control Unleashed group classes with the distracted dogs: when you come to a high-distraction environment and it seems impossible to get your dog’s focus on you, sometimes you need to temporarily lower the bar very low. To me ‘not being a jerk’ would mean the dog has all four paws on the ground, they are not barking , lunging, biting me or pulling like crazy. You are not asking your dog to do anything if you already know that ‘sit’ or calling their name will not work, you are just rewarding them for the absence of bad behaviour. In a difficult environment you may have to reward your dog as often as every 2-3 seconds (if you’re faster than that, I applause you !), which comes up 20-30 times per minute! That’s a lot of rewarding. This frequency surprises most people but think of it this way: if you are not reinforcing your dog the environment will, for example your dog will pull towards the other dogs and start barking in less than a second if you give them the chance, is this something that you’d rather have your dog doing?
The purpose of training is always to gradually raise the bar when appropriate, so once you start to get to where you want to be, THEN you can start rewarding the dog less often, make it more difficult for them, for example the reward only comes from eye contact now, or start asking them to do familiar behaviours. Be mindful though, if the co-operation starts to deteriorate, you need to be prepared to make it easier again.
But this is ‘treat’ training I don’t want to be just a walking meatball to my dog.
Well, neither do I. But this is where the mechanical skills of training come into play. Dogs are very smart, they figure out quickly that they are good when the food is visible but as soon as the meatballs are out of sight, they will find something more interesting to do. Therefore, it is so important to deliver the reward as a consequence to good behaviours, it is never a bribe. This means that the food is hidden in our pocket and not dangling in front of the dog’s nose. You should also pick a marker signal that you can use to tell your dog “that’s what I want” and only after you have given them the signal you put your hand in your pocket. You can use the word ‘yes’ or ‘good’ or a clicker. This approach makes training a two-way street: the dog knows they have to do something for you, which makes you mark the behaviour and put your hand in your pocket. Rules are established and both parties win!
If you are going through a behaviour challenge with your dog the more often you mark the dog’s good choices in the beginning the faster you will get results. This does mean that you need to have an abundant stash of tasty treats in your pockets but instead of being the meatball itself you are a cunning meatball dispenser and the dog needs to figure out how to make you spit out the paycheck. Make your dog work for their food, no need for food bowls for a while!
Reward other than food?
I love using reinforcements that are not food. However, the challenge with them often is that when you are teaching new behaviours and you do need to dispense those 20 rewards a minute, food is by far the best choice because it is the fastest. Once your training progresses, you can start switching to things like a game of tug/ tossing a ball (excellent for a recall, for example!) and environmental rewards. Our everyday life is full of environmental rewards that we can harness to reinforce good behaviours in our dogs. Getting out of the door to go for a walk, hopping in/out of the car, sniffing the ground, being allowed to run off when the leash comes off, permission to go and greet a dog friend are just a few examples that most dogs love, take advantage of them. My favourite is a default behaviour which is your dog’s way of asking “please may I”? It could be for example a sit combined with eye contact which will make you say ‘OK’ and your dog gets their environmental reward. The more often you use these in your everyday life, the better-behaved your dog will be.
So don’t be afraid to reward your dog abundantly and often BEFORE they get into mischief! Whenever you catch your dog doing something that you like, such as laying down beside the couch or kitchen counter, checking in with you on your walks, being quiet in their crate, greeting you with 4 paws on the ground, walking beside you before the leash comes tight, reward them! You will see that your dog will start doing what you want much faster.
One of my personal favourites, reinforcing recalls a lot when you actually don’t need them: