One hallmark of positive reinforcement training is how excited dogs get to train. Positive reinforcement training should be fun for both you and your dog. If you’re not both having a great time, change what you’re doing!
With positive reinforcement training, we reward the dog for behaviors we like. Rewards can be anything the dog likes. The ideal rewards are quick, portable, and highly enjoyable for the dog. We’ll break down some of the main training rewards below.
Food: in training classes, we primarily use food to reward dogs. This is because food is fast, portable, and all dogs like it (if your dog didn’t like food, he’d be dead). The ideal training treat is tiny (the size of a pea or smaller), soft, fairly healthy, and highly palatable. Some examples of training treats I frequently use include string cheese, roast beef, chicken, beef heart, venison liver, and hot dogs. If you use commercial dog treats, look for meat-based treats with little or no sugar.
Tug toys: these are great rewards to use for behaviors that require some genuine physical effort on the dog’s part, such as recall or heeling. Tug is a wonderful game for many reasons (more on this in future posts), and it’s worth putting the time in to teach a young dog good tug skills. Even reluctant tuggers can often learn to enjoy this game.
Fetch toys: balls, squeaky toys, and other small toys can be tossed for an extra burst of speed. Like tug, these rewards are best given for active behaviors such as coming to the obedience “front” position, performing an agility obstacle, or retrieving.
Play: no toys necessary! Many dogs are very playful and enjoy playing short chase or gentle tag games. This is a great reward for heeling: when the dog catches up to heel position, tag her shoulder and take off in a different direction with a gleeful, “betcha can’t catch me!” When she catches up to you and gets back into heel position, click and reward with something else.
Life rewards: think of all the things your dog loves to do. Is there a way you can make these activities into rewards for good behavior? Perhaps you could require that your adolescent male puppy walk on a loose leash up to the fire hydrant before he gets to sniff and pee on it, or that your snuggly Shih Tzu sit before you invite her into your lap.
Whichever rewards you use, mix them up! I like ice cream, but if all you ever give me is ice cream I’ll eventually get sick of it and want some soup instead. Your dog should never be able to predict which reward he’ll get next. Will it be chicken? Cheese? The tug toy? The opportunity to play with another dog? Keep him guessing, and you’ll keep him engaged!
So, what are your dog’s favorite rewards? Do you have any creative rewards that you use to “jackpot” especially stunning performances? What potential rewards have you tried that your dog didn’t care for? Let us know by commenting below!