When training your dog, you can sometimes feel frustrated if your dog doesn’t want to do what you are asking. But dogs, like people, tend to be more motivated to act when there’s an incentive. So if you are having difficulty training your dog, perhaps he or she is thinking: ‘what’s in it for me? Not much, it seems.’
Let’s look at the best kinds of rewards to give your dog when training so that you can get results that you want, and your dog is happy to comply.
The basic principle
Simply put, you need to have something that your dog wants and that they can’t have until they perform the desired action. Dogs won’t make an effort for no reward.
These days, the most common types of rewards are food, play, and praise. The degree to which your dog prefers one over the other two depends on the breed and his or her life history and temperament.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
For jobs that require your dog to have patience, such as: walk, heel, sit, and stay, most of the time you’ll want to use food as rewards.
Regarding what food to use as rewards, commercial dog treats are often too dry and not exciting enough. Tiny pieces of meat are perfect – make them small, about the size of a kernel of corn.
If your dog doesn’t eat treats, try stopping leaving food out all the time. You could try feeding small amounts of dog food daily as little treats at feeding time. Then within a few days, you can switch to using treats.
Rewarding your dog with toys works best for jobs involving memory or agility. Dogs can get very excited when playing, so toys as rewards in these situations can be quite effective.
Start by choosing a toy and playing for short periods with your dog. Be sure to stop play before your dog gets tired of the activity. Put the toy away safely while your dog still wants to play. You aren’t cruel – you are merely increasing the perceived value of the toy.
Perfect toys for games are rope toys, tennis balls, or rag toys. Be sure these toys are sturdy and are suitable for your type of dog.
Start by daily play sessions of 5 to 10 minutes, once or twice a day. The more sessions you can do, the better, as long as you put that toy away before your dog is ready to stop.
As dogs always want what they can’t have, your dog will be motivated by that toy in no time for training.
Praise as a reward
Praise doesn’t tend to work by itself as a reward these days. As our dogs are often spending time with us rather than cooped up outside in kennels, praise is not the most effective. For dogs who spend time away from human contact, praise can be effective since they are social animals, craving human attention and affection.
Attention, of course, is its own reward. If your dog likes climbing in bed with you, you can treat your dog to a ramp like this Chasing Tails one once their training is complete. Make getting into bed easier for your dog after a hard day of working with you.
How often to give rewards
People are surprised to hear that you may need to give your dog a treat every 2 seconds or so at the start of training. If your dog has a short attention span, you want to keep his or her focus on you and on the behavior that you want. You are aiming to get total control of your dog’s behavior during training, so give as many treats as it takes. This is why food treats need to be so small!
Consider your breed
It used to be that people believed that only ‘weak trainers’ need to use food or toys as rewards. Now, though, we know that some breeds are genetically predisposed to certain behaviors. For example, gun dogs will stop and sit still on command to get access to wildlife such as ducks and other fowl. In this case, fetching the duck is part of their reward as natural behavior, and so you probably won’t need to use food or other rewards to encourage this behavior.
If you are encouraging your dog to do behaviors that are not natural for him or her, expect to need to use rewards as part of the training.