August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Reward-based training is humane, fun and helps you build a communication style with your dog. Reward based training also bonds your dog more closely to you and your family.

Finding the right reward

  • What's rewarding to your dog? Training dogs begins with determining what motivates each individual dog. What 'currency' do you need to motivate your dog to do what you want them to do?
  • Make a list of the top 10 things your dog likes (e.g. types of foods and treats, activities, toys, affection.) Use that list to help train, motivate and reward your dog for the behaviors you want.
  • Food is often the easiest to use and the most salient for dogs. It can be used to reward behaviors but it can also be used as the "lure," to move your dog's body into a position that you want them in without pushing and pulling at their body.
  • Toys and play are great rewards for some dogs. Tennis balls, plush toys, tug toys, and fetch sticks can be used to train your dog. For example, your dog sits and the ball gets thrown.
  • Affection and activities your dog enjoys can also be used as rewards. Going outside, playtime with another dog, tummy rubs, petting, etc. can all be used. For example, you can ask your dog to "down" to have their leash removed for off-leash play.
  • The most appropriate reward is what your dog wants. For example, while training your dog to sit before going outdoors, they may be more interested in going outside than in getting a food treat. Using the opening of the door (providing access to the outdoors, which is what your dog REALLY wants) as the reward instead of a food treat is the best choice of reward in this case.
  • Some dogs will happily 'work' for dog kibble, but other dogs are less motivated by it. These dogs require stronger smelling and tastier treats, such as moist jerky treats or pieces of ham or chicken, to motivate them.

Tips and Troubleshooting

  • Make sure to give the reward within 1-2 seconds after the desired behavior occurs.
  • When training a new or very important behavior, always use high value treats. Once your dog performs the behavior consistently 95% of the time, you can try using a lower value treat.
  • Using a mixture of low and high value treats often works well for behaviors your dog already knows. An occasional 'surprise' of a special treat can be very motivating.
  • Occasionally, fearful dogs won't eat treats from your hand. If your dog is fearful, reward them by tossing the treat on the ground. If they're willing to eat the treat off the ground, reward them this way until they're confident enough to take treats from your hand.
  • Treats should be small- i.e., the size of an eraser head. Your dog should be able to swallow the treat VERY quickly and be ready for the next training opportunity. Bits of chicken, cheese, freeze dried meats, hot dogs, moist store bought treats, etc. are all good choices.
  • Dogs that aren't interested in ANY type of food for training might need to be evaluated. First be sure that they aren't getting too much 'free' food, leaving them with no motivation to 'work' to earn food. Cutting back on meals by ¼ during heavy training times and/or feeding all meals in small bites during training may help. If that doesn't work, your dog should be evaluated to be sure they're not highly stressed and they don't have a medical problem.