Imagine this scenario: You’re at work and your boss calls you in and says,
“Sally, we’re going to promote you, you’re doing such a fab job.”
“Great!” you think and ask, “What sort of pay rise am I looking at for this additional responsibility?”
“Pay rise?” says your boss, “Oh, we’re not going to be paying you more – we’re actually going to stop paying you altogether. But great job, Sally, really well done”.
No doubt Sally would rapidly stop feeling the need to carry on doing her best – or even bother showing up at all.
Now let’s apply this scenario to your dog:
You’ve been doing recall training with Rover, using some tasty treats to reward him when he gets back to you. He’s doing so well and is now recalling perfectly every single time you call. Then, now that he’s is beautifully behaved, you decide you don’t need to give him treats for coming back anymore… Right? Well, much like Sally, if I were Rover I’d stop showing up, too.
If you’re training your dog to do something new, it’s really important to tap into what motivates him or her. Once you know what your dog loves, you can use it to reward him for performing the new behaviours that you want; after all, what gets rewarded gets repeated! Equally, what gets ignored, stops happening.
If you want your dog to continue repeating good behaviours, you need to keep rewarding!!
These are some of the questions I am often asked about rewards & treats:
What rewards should I use?
It really depends on your dog’s preferences and what you are teaching. Dogs have likes and dislikes just as we do, so it’s important to figure out your dog’s “hierarchy of rewards,” i.e. what he/she likes the most and the least, and what’s in-between. Once you have this individual scale for your dog, you can start really supercharging your training.
My own dog, Winnie, has a hierarchy of rewards that looks something like this >>>
If I were teaching Winnie something new or to do something she already knows reasonably well but in a new and distracting environment, I would need liver paste or picnic sausage!! Top of the scale, irresistible to Winnie, and better even than squirrel hunting – I would have her full attention.
If, however, I were to use liver paste at home to reward her for doing something super-easy that she already knows, like a “sit”, that high value reward would soon lose its value. Instead I would want to use something like her kibble to reinforce this and reserve the liver paste for a harder training session/teaching something new.
- If the behaviour you’re asking for is easy – use a lower value treat.
- If the behaviour is new, or you are practicing in a distracting environment – use a high value treat.
How often should I be rewarding my dog?
Good question – and again, it depends. If you are beginning to teach a new behaviour, then rewards should come reliably every time your dog gets the behaviour right. For example, if you are teaching a sit for the first time then every time your dog’s bottom hits the floor, you should reward to really consolidate the learning that this is the right behaviour and ensure they do it again the next time you ask.
Over time, once your dog finds this an easy task, you can reduce the rewards to come on a more seemingly random reward schedule. Here’s a human analogy that I personally find useful:
Constant reward schedule: The vending machine
You put £1 into a vending machine (one that is in good working order, might I add), you hit the buttons for the drink you want and it’s delivered. That might be fun and exciting if you’ve never experienced a vending machine before but, once you’ve used one many times, the sequence of events becomes predictable and boring. This is a ‘Continuous Reinforcement Schedule’ – fun at first but not for long.
Intermittent/random reward schedule: The slot machine
Now let’s consider a slot machine. How addictive and exciting are they! You think you” just put a few pounds in, only to find you carry on, telling yourself that the next pound will score the jackpot? The fact that you might get lucky, i.e. be reinforced, is what keeps you there, repeating the same behaviour, just in case.
The possibility of success is addictive… for humans and for dogs! Throwing in a random reinforcing piece of chicken for the occasional sit behaviour keeps it worth your dog’s while to keep sitting when you ask – it’s the canine equivalent of hitting the jackpot!
If your dog is consistently doing the new skill you have taught him, then experiment with reducing rewards to be more intermittent (seemingly random). Just be mindful not to reduce the treat schedule to the point where you’d bet £50 of your own money that they know the behaviour. That’s a helpful litmus test I use.
What if my dog isn’t food motivated?
I have come across some dogs in my time as a trainer that haven’t been overly food motivated. That’s OK, as we can also motivate and reward them using toy play and games – it just takes slightly longer as every time the dog gets the behaviour you want right, you have to stop and have a decent 10-20 second play session with them.
In the same way as food has a hierarchy, so do toys. Spend some time thinking about the toys your dog loves, and those he isn’t bothered by, e.g. balls, tuggie toys, frisbees, squeaky toys, rubber toys, rope toys.
Timing of training can help as well. Despite the fact that some dogs aren’t as food motivated as others, dogs still need to eat to survive! So, if you have a dog that isn’t overly food motivated, you might need to be more careful with the timing of your training so that you catch them when food does have a value, i.e. before breakfast or dinner when they have built up an appetite. You will likely find you have far more success using food to train at those times, so try a 2-3 min training session before you give them their breakfast, and the same before dinner.
Is my dog going to get fat with all of these rewards?
I would consider this on a case by case basis, as for many growing puppies a few extra treats won’t effect their weight much, given their rapid metabolisms. That said, you may like to reduce their daily diet a little to account for the extra intake.
Suggested ideas of top tasty treats and where to buy them:
I buy most of my dog treats from East Sheen Waitrose or East Sheen Pets. Treats I use:
• Small squares of cheddar cheese
• Chopped frankfurter sausage
• Picnic sausage
• Primula Cheese paste
• Apple (not the core)
• Sweet potato (microwaved and cooled)
• Chicken breast (steamed/boiled and cooled)
• Nature’s Menu 95% meat treats (Sheen Pets)
This just a basic guide to using rewards to supercharge your dog training (I could write a book!) and I hope it gives you some food for thought. Please do remember that your dog is an individual, so the approach to their training and their rewards should be applied on a case by case basis.