Rewarding and Bridging/Marking - the Magic "Yes" Word!
For your puppy to associate a behaviour and a reward, the reinforcement needs to be issued in 1-2 seconds of the desired behaviour happening for your puppy to understand that is what the reward was for. To buy a little more time (as sometimes it is just not possible to get the reward to the puppy in that period of time) we implement a bridge. A bridge is a snapshot in time; it indicates that the behaviour the dog has performed has been done correctly. The bridge marks the behaviour as being correct and indicates to the puppy that the reward is coming. I like to use the word “YES” as a bridge because it is short, sharp and can be easily said. A bridge must always be followed through with a reward that the dog finds amazing to hold its value (majority of the time it is food as food is innately good to puppies). Be mindful that reward value can change and rate differently in different environments which means that you may need to swap it up or try harder to keep your puppy engaged. E.g. At home in a calm environment with no other outsider stimulus your puppy may find a liver treat highly rewarding, however as soon as you step out the front door and there is another dog which your puppy finds to be very exciting the value of the liver treat dramatically drops and doesn’t hold the same value as the other dog rates higher on the motivation scale in your puppy’s eyes. But if your puppy loves BBQ chicken and will focus on that over the other dog you could say that the BBQ chicken rates higher on your puppy’s motivation scale and you have found a reward that compliments the stimulus. Remember it is your puppy who decides what is rewarding and reinforcing, not you. Give them an option to choose how they want to be rewarded and reinforced. Sometimes it can be unconventional and you will have to find out how to use it in a convenient way but your puppy will very much appreciate you exploring their motivations, passions and likes with them.
When working with your puppy you always want to reinforce behaviours, not just reward them. If you're 'rewarding' your puppy but that behaviour isn't getting stronger, that isn't positive reinforcement, it is just a reward and you being nice. Up your game and find the motivation that your puppy is reinforced by.
If you do not want to treat your puppy, do not use your bridge instead issue verbal and physical praise. Like play or a pat with a “Good girl/boy! You are doing such a great job.” When teaching your puppy a new behaviour be mindful not to eliminate treats too quickly (refer to There are 3 stages to teaching your puppy a new skill or behaviour below).
As you won’t be carrying treats around on you all of the time, my advice would be to get multiple airtight containers filled with treats and place one out of your puppy’s reach in every room your puppy is allowed in. That way you can still bridge whenever you feel your puppy has done something that deserves to be rewarded and you don’t have to venture too far to get a treat for them. It is also important to train your puppy when they can’t see their reward. This is to teach them that whether or not they can see it has nothing to do with whether they will have one. It is simple to teach:
Step 1: Show your puppy that you have a treat and then put it in your pocket. Ask your puppy to do a simple behaviour like a ‘sit’. Bridge and take out the treat from your pocket and reward them.
Step 2: Show your puppy that you have a treat and then put it on the bench on the other side of the room and return to where you were. Again ask them for a simple behaviour such as ‘sit’, bridge and run with them to the other side of the room to get their reward.
Step 3: Show your puppy that you have a treat and then put it in a completely different room and return to where you were. Ask them for a simple behaviour again. As soon as they have done it bridge and run with them into the other room to get the reward.
Step 4: Now don’t show your puppy the reward wherever it may be and ask them to do a simple behaviour. Bridge and give them the hidden reward.
If you have multiple dogs living in the one household, there will be times where one dog will do something that warrants a bridge and treat and you will need to distinguish with the dogs who the bridge is for. Otherwise the dog who wasn’t being bridge won’t understand it is not for them and you could accidentally inadvertently be marking undesirable behaviours. To avoid this when both dogs are around we must bridge “Yes” and follow through with the dog’s name that the bridge is for. E.g. “Yes, Luna!”