This is a question I am often asked by dog owners, especially since food treats are the go-to reward for most obedience type training. And for good reason. I definitely advocate the use of food treats in a dog training class environment or when teaching your dog a new skill. That being said there are so many other ways to reward your dog, especially around the home, that food treats don’t need to be your only option.
What are rewards?
You won’t be the only one if your immediate thought was food treats! I even spoke about it in the first paragraph of this post! And anyway you are right. Food treats definitely count as a reward and there are plenty of dogs out there who are VERY motivated by food treats.
Here are just a few reasons why food treats are a great option as a reward for your dog:
- All dogs are motivated by food to some extent (some greater than others – yes I’m looking at you Labradors!);
- Almost all dogs will consume a food treat if offered;
- Dogs have a highly tuned sense of smell so using food treats are great for keeping their focus (dogs don’t have many taste buds so it’s actually the smell of food that they are attracted to.)
- Dogs find food to be of a high value and will easily accept this as a reward;
- Using food treats is quick, easy, convenient and portable which makes it ideal for all sorts of reward opportunities.
OK so we know why food treats are such a great reward but why do we even need rewards in the first place? Simple. We use the reward to reinforce a desired behaviour/action. This then gives the dog an incentive to keep up the wanted behaviour which makes them more likely to repeat the desired behaviour in the future. The more we reward the behaviour/action the more often the dog will offer it. Think of it like this. A reward is almost like a pay cheque or an agreement we enter into with our dogs. It basically states that if you do this behaviour/action then I will give you something you want in return.
Offering rewards also helps your dog to build a positive association with the behaviour/action and helps with their overall happy emotional response.
But here’s the thing. And this is important guys. Rewards can be almost anything. The key here is that the reward is: what the dog wants at that time.
What does your dog want?
So, how do you know what the dog wants? Well, it’s almost entirely situation dependent and something you will have to work out each time. But don’t worry, in most cases your dog will let you know! Besides you always have food treats to fall back on though right?!
Here are some everyday examples of what your dog might actually want that you can use as rewards, besides a food treat:
- A pat;
- To play with a toy;
- To eat their dinner;
- To go outside (or come inside – think sad eyes looking at you through the sliding door. Yes a treat would be nice, but coming inside would be even better)
- To snuggle with you on the couch;
- To have the lead put on so they can go for a walk;
- To walk forward, rather than stopping;
- To sniff a smelly patch of grass;
- To be able to play with another dog etc.
The type of reward that your dog wants will change and you are probably already rewarding them with these types of rewards without even consciously thinking about it.
If you are out on a walk, the reward for loose lead walking could be being able to keep walking, being able to sniff, maybe being allowed to greet another dog. Your dog may very well not be interested in playing with a toy or even taking a food treat so these wouldn’t be good options in this situation anyway.
And remember, the reward must be to reinforce behaviour or activity that you want. With the walking example above, the reward is for walking with a loose lead.
Here’s another example. You are sitting on your couch watching TV after a long day at the office. Your dog comes into the lounge and heads straight for her dog bed by your feet. To reward your dog for one, not jumping up on the couch and two, sleeping in her correct spot, you reach over and give her a pat. A perfect reward for offering you perfectly wanted behaviour.
Timing is everything.
Sometimes it will be really easy to know which reward to offer and sometimes, it could go either way or more than one reward option could be workable. Don’t overthink it, just be aware that you have options and sometimes the most obvious one is the one you go for.
But what is important is WHEN you deliver your chosen reward. The sweet spot is between 0.5 – 3 seconds of the desired behaviour/action. Yep, you need to be pretty quick about it! This small window doesn’t leave much time for in-depth reward analysis so go with what’s easiest in the moment.
If you give a reward anywhere from 7 seconds after the behaviour/action it is highly unlikely your dog will make the connection between what they did and getting the reward. They are more likely to think what they were JUST doing is what you want rather than thinking you are being a super nice person so be careful of your timing! Hey your dog could already have moved on to something very undesirable so beware! Ask anyone who has a dog that pulls on the lead. That is an example of rewards going very, very wrong.