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What's a Reward? Is it Really Important!

By Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, CCBC

Many people freely dispense treats simply because they love their dogs, think they are cute and reward them just for existing. Dogs love to do things for their owners once they realize that a reward follows. Who doesn't like to get a paycheck for a job well done?

So, what is a reward? Think of it as a motivator in the eyes of the beholder - anything that your DOG likes. It may not be rewarding to you or to other dogs. The more you reward what you like, the quicker the dog will perform!

Some dogs ‘live’ for their morning Frisbee romps, while others don't see the purpose of chasing a round floppy disc 40-50 times over and over again. Chasing, barking and nipping at children might be reinforcing to many dogs, but definitely not to the children nor is it appropriate behavior. Finding out what ‘turns your dog on’ is critical if you are going to use your rewards as part of your training. Once you have figured out what those rewards are, put them into your pockets before each walk so you are ready to reinforce any good behavior.

To help you find your dog’s motivational triggers, begin my listing them in order of your dog’s preference, #5 being the lowest #1 being the highest. In other words, what is YOUR DOG willing to work for:

Play/Toys. Name 5 games your dog loves to play. It’s what your dog likes to do or play with, not what you think he should be playing with. Some love fetch, others prefer tug. Test out different toys. Some love fuzzy toys, some like rope toys, while others like balls. Empty plastic water or detergent bottles are a big hit with many dogs. Use your imagination! If you are using toys as a reward in training, then avoid leaving them out for your dog to play with during non-training times. The value of these toys will diminish quickly. Since puppies have short attention spans, 2-3 sessions of one game is enough so you’ll need a variety of reinforcers when first starting out until they get hooked!

Praise. Name 5 words that cause your dog’s tail to way. Some dogs are highly motivated by praise, but most dogs have to be taught to like it. They learn to enjoy it because praise is often followed by something good like petting, food, play, etc. If you haven’t linked it with something good, it would have a very low value and would be low on the motivational totem pole. For example, tell your dog ‘yes’ in an exciting tone of voice and quickly following it with a treat. Eventually, your dog will associate the word ‘yes’ with something good. Once he understands what ‘yes’ means, you can tell him ‘yes’, give him a treat and pet him. Gradually stop giving the treat after ‘yes’ and simply follow it with petting.

Real Life Rewards/Travels. Name 5 things your dog loves to do and places he enjoys going. This might be a romp in the woods, swimming, freedom, car rides, sniffing, or rolling in cow manure (not a big hit with the humans!). Use these after you have asked your dog to do something.

Food. Name 5 food items your dog loves to eat. (No, ‘deer droppings’ don’t count on the list!) Start with the lowest motivational food and use it for the earliest and easiest training to sustain behavior. You may have to do a food sampling. Kibble works well at home, but is useless if he has just eaten a bowl full before you train, especially around distractions. Think about how stuffed you are after Thanksgiving dinner. Warm apple pie a la mode may not be as rewarding as it would be when you have had a piece of broiled fish for dinner!

Petting. List 5 ways your dog likes to be touched. Be careful not to give #1 for free just because he’s cute or it will quickly lose its value when you want to use it as a reward.

Be creative, have patience and enjoy the learning/training process that you will experience together. You will not regret the results!

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