Does your dog come running when they hear the sound of the cookie jar open? Or do they tend to bring a toy to your feet, begging you to toss it? These could be signs of what motivates your dog. When practicing basic manners or training at advanced levels in a sport it’s important to reward your dog for praise and compensation for a good job done. But finding the right motivator can be the tricky part.
Dogs Are Individuals
Different dogs are going to want different types of reinforcement when training. Just because one type of treat might be highly rewarding to one of your dogs that doesn’t mean it will be to another. Similarly, one kind of treat might be rewarding for your dog in trick training but might not carry the same value for Dock Diving.
Dogs are individuals and have preferences for rewards. For some dogs the most valuable reward is the opportunity to chase a ball, when for others, it’s meaningless. When thinking about rewarding your dog during training consider your dog’s individual preferences for treats, praise, and play and use those to your advantage.
Your dog also has preferences for how valuable a certain reward is. Your dog might love a crunchy biscuit as a treat while practicing in your yard, but when you get to training class, they need something more high value like freeze dried meat or string cheese to hold their attention when faced with the distraction of other dogs.
Kibble tends to be a universal reward as training treats, but probably falls into a “low value” reward category, making it better practicing skills your dog knows in a low distracting environment. But if you’re trying something new and complicated or taking your dog on a walk through a busy park, you might want to have something of high value to your dog to use as a reward to keep their attention.
Mix Up The Motivation
When training your dog, it’s a good idea to have a variety of rewards to switch between. None of us enjoy eating the same thing and having different rewards available can not only help your dog learn faster and improve behavior, but it can also keep your dog interested and engaged—especially in distracting environments.
When beginning training, it can be helpful to keep a list of the different things (treats, toys, games, etc.) that your dog finds rewarding and try to rank them as low value, medium value, and high value. Knowing how valuable each reward type is for your dog can help you make split second decisions about which reward to utilize in which situation.
For some dogs, toys are automatically a high value reward that can be used as reinforcement when training. For others, it might take some time and intentional training to build up value in toys or toy related games, like fetch or tug, as a reward. If your dog loves to play with toys, use that to your advantage and keep one in your pocket or training bag to utilize when teaching new skills.
Tug can be an especially useful game that is both rewarding for your dog and builds engagement with you as the handler.
The opportunity to sniff and explore can also be a reward to add to training. An easy way to do this is to cue a specific behavior and when your dog does it, praise, use your release cue, and encourage your dog to go sniff.
For example, if you’re out hiking with your dog on a trail, you’ll want to cue them to stay close to you to allow another group of people to pass. After the group passes, you can to release your dog to sniff freely along the edge of the trail. These environmental rewards can be a very natural way to build reinforcement into your dog’s everyday adventures.
Keeping your training sessions fun, upbeat, and playful is essential for keeping your dog engaged in learning. So don’t forget to praise your dog throughout training. Praise for a job well done is as important as incorporating treats and toys in your training.
In fact, some dogs have been shown to find praise or social interaction with humans as rewarding, or even more rewarding than other reinforcements. Pay attention to how your dog responds to praise and what kind of verbal praise they reacts best to.
Using Multiple Rewards
The more experience you get with training, the more you’ll be able to understand what your dog finds rewarding in different locations and situations. The world is exciting, interesting, and distracting for our dogs, so we want to be the most engaging and valuable our dogs want to put their attention on.
Experiment with different types of treats, food, toys, games, and praise to find what works best for your dog. Save the most favorite rewards for the most challenging skills or training scenarios.
It may take some trail and error, but once you nail their motivation down, training will be much easier.