Dog Training Rewards: A Guide Beyond Treats

What is a reward?

Google told me a reward is defined as a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort or achievement. One of the most important concepts about rewards is to remember that their value is defined by the person receiving them, not the person giving them. For example, if I went to work and instead of a paycheck they decided to give me a gift card to Home Depot, I would consider that punishment! Where is my paycheck?! They might be shocked when they hear why I gave my notice since they think Home Depot is the best; however, they are not the ones receiving the so called reward, I am!

(PS: no judgement about home Depot. It’s a fine store.)  

We have to think this way regarding rewards when it comes to our canine companions. Our dogs will communicate to us what they find rewarding and it’s up to us to pay attention.

Using Food

It’s super easy to train using food. I use it for several reasons:

  • The dog needs to eat anyway – might as well have him learn a thing or two during the process.
  • It’s fast and efficient to use and deliver food to the dog after he / she performs the desired behavior.
  • It’s highly rewarding for most dogs.
  • Showing your dog what to do instead and rewarding them for that behavior is highly motivating. The more you reward the choice you want the more the dog will engage in that behavior.

Types of Food Rewards

  • Your dog’s meal – kibble pieces
  • Raw – place inside a squeeze tube and let the dog lick the bottle
  • Ziwi Peaks
  • Deli meats
  • Cheese
  • Meat Based Baby Food
  • Hot dogs
  • Zukes
  • Training treats
  • Cream cheese / peanut butter frozen or refrigerated in small Tupperware
  • Natural balance treat logs (cut into small pieces)
  • Stella and Chewy’s freeze dried cakes (broken in small pieces)
  • Frozen Peas
  • Cut up small pieces of carrot
  • And the list goes on…..

Give me a Raise!

When training your dog it’s important to know which behaviors deserve a higher pay out. For example, if your dog does a recall (come when called) in the house, I think it’s safe to pay off that behavior with a few pieces of kibble. However; if your dog does a recall away from other dogs while off leash (whoa! PhD level) then you need to pay out the appropriate reward: meat based baby food or 10 small pieces of hot dog! Yum!

While you’re determining which behaviors are easiest to hardest, you might also consider rating your rewards from lowest to highest value. This way you will have the appropriate reward for the appropriate behavior. This will set you and your dog up for success during each training session!

Do I have to wear a treat bag forever?!

I get this question all the time. What do you mean? You don’t want to wear fanny packs and smell like hot dogs the rest of your life?? Why the hell not?!

Just kidding – I get it. The good news is, you don’t need to wear a fanny pack and smell like hot dogs forever. It’s actually beneficial to the training process and to your dog’s behavior that you don’t use food all the time. The treat bag, sight of the clicker and smell of food definitely lets the dog know it’s training time! The dog usually performs the behaviors they know without a hitch; however, when it comes to the real world, their behavior tends to fall apart. This is where life rewards come in!!

What is a Life Reward?  

Life Rewards are anything your dog loves other than food. See the list below for some ideas.

Access to:

  • Water
  • Petting
  • Play
  • A social interaction: with people, other animals
  • Crossing the street
  • Going outside
  • Coming inside
  • Getting the leash on
  • Taking the leash off
  • Toys
  • Sitting on the couch / bed
  • Chasing an object

Make a list of rewards your dog likes, loves and needs! For example, you can ask your dog to sit before unclipping the leash, presenting a toy or giving a belly rub. Life Rewards are different for every dog and can also be ranked from lowest to highest value. For example, my dog likes belly rubs but he loves jumping on the couch.   

How to Incorporate Life Rewards

  • Think of behaviors that your dog already knows:
  • Ask your dog to do that behavior and once they have, give them access to the reward right away.

Examples:

  • Sit and wait before crossing the street
  • Down before taking the leash off
  • Touch before exiting the house for a walk

Since dogs are not great at generalizing behaviors from one content to the next (from sitting in your living room to sitting facing the front door before a walk), you may need to use your hand signal or a food lure to “remind” them of the behavior you are looking for.

Incorporating Life rewards is a Genius Idea Because:

  • It makes training more practical and a part of your everyday routine. It’s not just about the treat bag, training happens ALL the time!
  • It helps to fade out the use of food as rewards.
  • It keeps your dog guessing and looking to you for access to things in his or her life.
  • It helps you pay attention to what motivates your dog. They are living breathing creatures where their motivation shifts all the time. Be aware of this and use it for training.  
  • It helps you generalize the behaviors in to a variety of contexts (not just the living room).
  • Dogs are learning all the time, so it’s important we show them what will work for both us and them throughout the day!

Your turn:

  • What does your dog like?
  • What does your dog live?
  • What does your dog need?
  • What behaviors will you ask he or she to do before getting access to these life rewards?

Have fun!