Food! When you saw the title, that was the first thing you thought of, right? You may envision colorful little Milkbones, liver treats or chopped-up hot dogs. If you train with food a lot and are now sick of the smell of hot dogs, you’ll be relieved to know that rewards don’t have to be just treats.
A reward (“reinforcement” is the technical term) is whatever the trainee finds valuable. Trainers use treats a lot because most dogs will work enthusiastically for treats and they are easy to carry around. You can also use toys. Have a tennis ball-obsessed retriever? Use balls as a training reward. Same with flying dics for frisbee-obsessed Border Collies. Police dogs do what they do for a chance to play with their toy. It’s their “paycheck.”
Sometimes, in a highly distracting environment, treats and toys lose their value for dogs, because there are a million other things out there that the dog is more interested in. You can try making the food more valuable (e.g. switch from kibble to bits of chicken), but if that doesn’t work, you need to be more creative. In any training situation, good trainers stop and think: “What does my dog want right now?” Figure that out, and you can use it to make your training more successful. If there are other dogs around and your dog seems interested, a reward can be letting him play with them.
One of my dogs, Friday, is normally food crazy. She’ll do anything for a treat. But when we’re out in public, she loses all interest in treats. What she really wants to do is to go sniff all the trees and bushes on our path. So I’ll have her do a training exercise, then let her go smell the bushes.
A helpful exercise for determining what to use as rewards: grab a pen and paper and make a list of everything your dog likes. My dogs’ lists look something like this:
Friday: walks, swimming, food, meeting new people (especially kids), meeting dogs, her plastic bowling ball, NOT being petted (what can I say. Must be her Akita genes)
Jonas: Attention (petting, praise), food, frisbees, tug-of-war, walks, hunting for lizards at the park, playing with empty plastic water jugs
Merlin: Frisbees, frisbees, more frisbees, hot dogs, playing with dogs, tug-of-war
Once you have your list, think of how you can use it to your advantage. Since Merlin lives for frisbees, I use them a lot in training. When we’re at the park, Jonas doesn’t want to do anything but chase lizards. So we’ll work on whatever I’m trying to teach him, and when he does a good job I’ll release him to hunt geckos to his heart’s content (not that he’ll ever manage to catch any). Having a good understanding of what your dog likes increases your “arsenal” of training rewards.
The Disney dog myth
Some people* sneer at the idea of using rewards in training, thinking that the dog should work for his owner because he loves her and wants to please her. I think of this as the Disney Dog Ideal.
It’s a nice idea, but… it is the very, very rare dog that will actually work simply for his master’s approval. There are those (old fashioned) trainers who insist that they never use treats or other rewards, insist that they can make a dog work for praise alone. Chances are, these trainers are relying heavily on frequent collar corrections, loud scary noises and other unpleasant things.
News flash: The dog is not working for the praise. He’s working to avoid the bad stuff.
I’m not trying to suggest that your dog doesn’t love you, and using rewards in training will not undermine your relationship with your dog. Think of how you treat your kids. You love them and they love you, but they’ll probably do their chores more willingly if they receive an allowance in return for their work.
*I used to be one of them. I’ve since seen the light.