Rewarding tips: what, how and where!

Finishing the exercise on the right note is important! What is motivation, and how do rewards help create it? The what, how and where of rewarding are a huge part of shaping the skill you’re teaching.

What is motivating to your dog? Do the tips or practices you hear from others actually work on your dog in that situation – or are you just feeding them a treat they do not want? How does the way you reward take your training forwards, and how can you use reward choice, manner and placement to shape your skill?

In this blog:

What does motivation mean? How can you create it? First, three key tips for keeping training fun and motivational. Then..

  1. What rewards can you use, and how to choose
  2. How to use the reward you chose
  3. Where to place the reward

Any dog can find agility fun – many paths to motivation!

Motivation for agility can be found either in the sport itself or practiced and built for the sport through rewards.

Some dogs find running and performing obstacles inherently rewarding! The lucky owners of these dogs (which may tend to be breeds made to work directly under human orders) never seem to struggle with their dog listening to them or getting them to run flat-out during agility. 

Other dogs however may need a bit more encouraging to find agility just as fun as it should be.  We can get to work on motivation for absolutely any type of dog! Before doing agility, though, be sure it’s safe and healthy for your dog – some may need to be cleared by a physio and/or vet as physically capable of running agility.

If your dog seems unmotivated, first make sure

  • your dog is physically healthy enough to run agility. Going slow or avoiding tasks can be because the dog feels uncomfortable or even in pain. Be fair to your dog and make sure practice is always pain-free.
  • your dog isn’t afraid. Your dog can be scared or wary of the environment or a particular obstacle. If so then to work on tiny foundation steps and some general desensitization and counter conditioning 😊

3 tips for building and maintaining motivation for a sport dog!

I could write a whole article on this subject! I co-hosted sports dog motivation lectures and subsequent seminar courses 😀 Here are three key tips related to motivating the sports dog.

  1. Keep it short and sweet. This means you keep expectations low and reward your dog for the tiniest most basic (in your opinion) behaviour.  Sometimes this could even be just that your dog pays you some attention on the training field. Reward sooner than you want to, before the dog opts out of interacting with you.
  2. Never be angry or frustrated – even if you don’t direct this at your dog, he’ll still notice it as a change in your behaviour (and probably scent!). If you feel like you’re getting a bit annoyed during training, just stop and come back to it when you’re ready.
  3. Don’t take it seriously. Agility is just fun, the dog’s just there to have a cool time with you. It doesn’t inherently matter to the dog if he doesn’t wrap tight enough, doesn’t hit his contact low enough, or skips a pole whilst weaving. It’s up to us to set our dogs up for success so that they can perform what we want them to – if it’s that important to us.

It’s up to us to set our dogs up for success.

Key to choosing a reward: If your dog likes it, use it.

Choose the rewards your dog wants – and don’t be afraid of using food to reward a sports dog

There is no one correct way to reward an agility dog! A common misconception is that agility dogs should only be rewarded by frantic tugging only when the toy’s still in the owner’ hand! This is untrue. Each dog has their own favourite reward, or even a whole list of them! 

Excluding food rewards from our training could mean that we miss out on motivating our dog better, or that we miss out on rewarding him more suitably depending on which behaviour we want to reinforce and how. In fact, this shouldn’t be limited only to food, but to anything the dog likes and will work for: toy, food, strokies, hugs, cheering, clapping, you being silly, taking their favourite obstacle, ripping up grass or leaves, jumping in a pool, smelling a particular scent, … If your dog likes it, use it!

Blend it up! The results of my MSc thesis suggest that dogs learn “better” (reproduce a learnt behaviour faster) when taught by a handler who encourages the dog whilst delivering a food reward. So don’t just rely on the toy or food or whatever else: be present, be part the reward too! Praise your dog, celebrate his amazing victories, be happy to spend time with your furry friend 😊

Here’s a few examples I use food for:

  • for reinforcing her “stay” before releasing her: start line or stopped contacts,
  • for teaching beginner steps of running contacts (shaping the target mat for instance),
  • for shaping wing wraps,
  • for working on focus in competition environments,
  • for her warm-up and cool-down,
  • for reinforcing settling (or at least patience) in the vicinity of other dogs running agility,
  • for when we’re tired of training agility and want to work on obedience etc instead 😊

How you reward shapes the skill you are practicing

Consider what it is you’re working on and how you want to reward that behaviour. Which aspect of the behaviour would you like to reinforce? It’s time to analyse what our dogs are doing – and what’s causing it. 

There are several aspects of behaviour that can be affected by how said behaviour is reinforced, even the emotion (or “conditioned emotional response”) linked to our cue and what the dog has to do.

Let’s consider the two most common agility rewards: food and toys. As a general rule, I tend to use toys for speed and food for careful precision (before moving onto toys when the precise skill is learnt). However, for example my pyrshep Jura prefers food as a reward after completing a trial run – that’s what she wants to work for and I’m more than happy to work with what motivates her best!  😊

Speaking for Jura, I already gave a few examples of where I use prefer to use food. Now lets talk a little about when I use toys, and how I use toys.

With toys the “how” is even more critical: is it just laid out, is it moving, is it thrown? What kind of behaviour will for example anticipating the reward cause, depending on how it’s given?

Dead toy (that’s been laid out and the dog is released to go fetch)

Caution!  Personally I don’t use a dead toy set at the end of a fast sequence. I don’t like how hard Jura has to brake when she runs straight to the toy. I always try to reward her within her line of movement, so that catching or collecting the toy doesn’t require her to make any unexpected direction changes or to brake suddenly.

  • for proofing behaviours (can my dog wrap this cone even with her ball next to it?),
  • for learning to play with me (can my dog play with the toy I’m holding despite the dead toys around him?),
  • for reinforcing distance behaviour and/or independence 
  • can be used to allow the dog to reward herself after a course, but as mentioned I mainly use a dead toy as a distraction the dog should ignore. I’ll release my dog onto a dead toy if she’s not running top speed.

Active toy

The action sequence that I tend to use when rewarding using and active toy is that Jura runs to me, grabs the toy I’m holding whilst running (I let her take it off me), then she retrieves it and we tug and celebrate together! I also throw the toy often (trying to ensure that she doesn’t have to do any crazy movements to collect it!) so she can retrieve it to me. 

  • for rewarding speed, 
  • for rewarding “come to hand”,
  • for rewarding distance work and independence (with a thrown toy),
  • for rewarding a sequence,
  • for rewarding a behaviour previously reinforced using food which is now being sped up (wing wraps in a sequence once they’re ready to be performed in this way for instance)

Understanding how reward placement shapes learning

Now that we’ve covered the choice of rewards and how to let the dog have them, one more point is left: placement (or direction, when reward moves). Where the reward is placed can have an effect on what the dog learns!

Here are a few behaviours and what the dog may learn depending on where she’s rewarded:

  • Stay
    • Where the dog is: obvious choice, reinforces immobility (but there’s even a difference between putting food on the ground and feeding the dog directly!).
    • Behind the dog: counters potential creeping behaviour where the dog sneaks forwards before he’s released, keeps the focus off the release if done often enough.
    • Ahead of the dog (release): the ultimate reward of the start line stay, puts the focus of the stay on being released – stay might not be so solid if never rewarded in place or behind the dog.
  • Wing wrap
    • At the jump wing: reinforces commitment, keeps the dog close to the wing, may slow the dog down if done repetitively.
    • Away from the wing: reinforces acceleration away from the wing, may weaken commitment if done repetitively.
  • Jump slices:
    • Think about the line you want the dog to take: make sure the reward is moving or placed along that line, to ensure the dog’s body can take the line you want. This way the dog can learn to perform the slice and keep moving in that direction. Her extension will be reinforced by the toy placement.
  • Obstacle sequence work
    • If the final obstacle doesn’t require collection (wing wrap you can reinforce) or a stop (stopped contacts for instance) it’s interesting to reward the dog’s fluid movement. This can be done by throwing the reward or by having the dog chase you if you’re far enough ahead. Keep him accelerating before/as you reward, to promote extension and motivation. This also keeps the dog’s focus forward, instead of him expecting his reward by therefore turning to you and slowing down.

Conditioned emotional response (CER) – otherwise known as HAVING FUN MATTERS

Don’t forget the main part of agility: fun! We want to be sure that the dog’s CER to our cues and to the whole idea of agility work is “Oh yay, the tunnel! Oh yay, the jump! Oh yay, the dog walk!”. By teaching and rewarding our dog in a positive and encouraging manner, his behaviours will be reinforced in such a manner also, meaning that he has more chance of learning by association that agility itself is inherently rewarding. 

So next time you train, be sure to remember choose the rewards depending on what you want to teach.

Next time in training, remember to consider: What to use, how to use it, where to use it!

This blog is written by Jess Pigott, a team ILOMME member for 2020 and 2021! You can follow Jess on instagram at @bellajurassic.


Jess lives in Belgium with three dogs who she actively trains and has adventures with. She works as a guide dog trainer and loves teaching classes as well as training her own dogs. Key in her training philosophy is that the dog always enjoys what they are doing.


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