Rewarding or Releasing Behaviour in Dog Training?

A basic mistake in dog training I think all dog owners have made is to reward a dog too early, and accidentally release it from what your doing.  A common and good example I see is on the recall. The owner is calling their dog back, and as the dog is running towards them they shout, “GOOD DOG”, and the dog then runs off in the opposite direction, leaving a very frustrated owner (By now screaming “COME HERE POPPY!!!”) and a happy dog thinking it has done the right thing.

Here is what is going on, so when we get any dog, be that a puppy or a rescue we always start training in some way. Mainly it is the sit, we get them to sit then reward them with the “Good Dog”, then allow them to get up for a fuss, or walk away from what you’re doing. Releasing them from the exercise. You are telling the dog they are doing it right, so creating a learned behaviour, you are also accidentally teaching them that that combination of words means you’re finished now. This comes in to play a problem as the dog is off lead more or working away from the owners even in the home. When your dog is not directly focusing on you for one to one training and is distracted by the environment it is most certainly going to be seeing the “Good Dog” as a release word in order to do what they want, as well as please you. We see it as encouragement as that is how we interpret it.

We are the teachers of our dogs, and we need to get into their head a little bit and understand how they understand us.

Efficient and reliable dog training for any command requires you to put in the basics, and the mechanics for all the training. A good reward word, a good encouragement word/voice, and an actual release word.

To combat the reward word becoming a release, keep repeating the word along side the command. An example would be “Sit, Gooood Dog, Sit, Gooood Dog”, rewarding with longer words than short sounds are slightly less exciting, and less likely to pull the dog out of the position you want them in. Reward them for staying where they are. This elongation of words allows you to encourage the right behaviour from your dog, rather than them moving off every 10 seconds and you becoming frustrated. I sometimes also use a separate encouragement word such as “GoGo” to help maintain a behaviour at speed, like a recall. I am not releasing them from what were doing, but instead encouraging it.

An actual release word should be taught during training and is easy to teach. I do some basic training, such as the sit or down, and once I want the dog to be released from this training. I use a word such as “Ok” and walk away from the dog or throw a treat/toy for the dog to play with away from what they were doing. Do this for short time periods, then build it up over time. It is important that you allow the dog to do what it wants during these periods of time, and call them to re engage when your ready for them. What you are creating is a taught release, so the dog waits for you to release them instead of them deciding to move away. The release command is a consistent signal that you have finished training/focusing, the dog can do what they want. This can be used for training, or on normal walks where when you are walking throw in the “Ok” to allow the dog to sniff the grass, greet another dog or walk away off lead. If your dog doesn’t want to, then they don’t have to.

What I have found both as a professional, and as a dog owner myself that the power of being consistent to these words training has a massive impact not only on your dog, but also on the way you interact with your dog daily. Giving you the empowerment to head into situations and know how to continue your training, and know your dog is focusing on you for the time you need. It greatly improves recall, and focus around other dogs for some dogs.

This blog post is a little intro into the difference and training, rather than a full on guide. Its easier to show the training, then write it down. It is hopefully going to make your think about what your dog might actually know, rather than what you think it knows, or thinks about the words you are saying. No dog is too old to learn the difference between the release word and reward. Rewarding a dog is easy, but pin pointing the right behaviour is hard as dogs behaviour changes from second to second. Consistency is key, and always being 100% sure in your head what behaviour you are rewarding, as well as aiming for as an outcome.

In summary, use a word to reward and encourage the right behaviour, and teach a release word to end the training or interaction, an off the dog a way to do what they want to do. Think dog, and think human. No one wants to, or can focus all the time. Why should your dog?

Kathryn Jones FdSc AAB


A Clever Approach to Dog Training and Behaviour