For most of my training, I use food rewards.

No matter what type of training method you prefer, I think having varied reinforcement sets both you and your dog up for success. As they say, variety is the spice of life. Why should your dog only expect one type of reward? Dogs like bonuses and pay raises too! 😉 Keeping things varied helps keep training entertaining for both you and your dog. On top of that, some reinforcers are everywhere; you can use them even if you’ve forgotten to bring rewards with you!

I would say that 80-90% of my training is done with food rewards. There are several reasons why I like to use food and why I use it so frequently:

* It’s a primary reinforcer Dogs need food to live so it satisfies a basic need.
* Food is easy to carry around and easy to deliver I can easily stuff a baggie of treats in my pocket when we’re out and about. A small goodie is easy to deliver after a click and it’s quickly swallowed. This makes it easier for Risa to ‘get it’ as there is less lag time between reward deliveries.
* I can tell Risa’s threshold/stress level easier If Risa is over threshold or too stressed out, she will not take food. I can use this information to assess the situation and change things so she is capable of working. She also gets a hard mouth (she doesn’t take treats nicely!) when she is stressed. If my fingers are starting to get sore, I’m dangerously close to her threshold.
* It can be used in more situations When working around other dogs especially, I find food a better reinforcer than a toy. Playing tuggie around other dogs can get them riled up which isn’t really fair to other handlers.
* Risa finds it easier to remain in a thinking state Sometimes, when I train with toys, I find Risa starts to try and predict when I’m going to whip out the toy causing her to get out of position. She experiences less anticipation when I train with treats so her movements are more precise.
* It’s easy to create varying levels of reward Food makes it easy to level up. Kibble would be on the bottom (good for low-level distractions or fluent behaviors), jerky treats in the middle, and super smelly and meaty treats at the ‘caviar level’ (something your dog is ga-ga for would be great for difficult behaviors or high-level distractions).

Using toys helps create animation in the desired behavior.

I always train new behaviors using food. Once Risa understands what I’m asking, I will occasionally switch to a toy reward. Toy rewards, for Risa, are a bit more difficult to use. First off, she has a terrible retrieve. I usually have to go to her to get the toy back to use it again. Plus, no one has informed her that playing WITH me is more exciting than running off with the toy on her own. On top of that, there are certain times when she will not play. New locations or very stressing events will cause her to show no interest in toys. I can usually count on her to eat but not always to play. Finally, I have to make sure I do not have the toy in my hand while we’re working. This causes her to anticipate the throw/reward. We have better luck if I hide it on me or have it off to the side.

I like to use toy rewards for various reasons:

* If I want a speedier response to a cue, I can use a toy It was amazing how quickly Risa’s leg weaves sped up when I threw a toy after marking her for the behavior. I’ve noticed this with several other behaviors as well. I often use a toy reward after I’ve taught the behavior to give it that extra speed.
* It creates a more animated response Risa is an active dog and she loves to play chase. By using a toy as a reward, I can create that animation and enthusiasm in the behavior I am asking for.
* It’s a higher-value reward than food As I said, running is a pretty high-level reward for Risa. I’ve used chasing the flirt pole as a reward for completing sequences in freestyle. Her focus on me was much better and her moves more flashy when I rewarded her with a game of chase at the end!

Life rewards are probably one of the best and least-utilized reinforcers in dog training. I admit, I don’t use them as often as I should. These rewards are things your dog already loves to do. Sniffing, rolling in something gross, swimming, going outside, chasing squirrels, etc. Your dog has already informed you that these things are super awesome in her eyes; use them to your advantage! These rewards are also fairly omnipresent. If you’ve forgotten your treats, why not reward loose-leash walking by letting your dog sniff a tree? Or mark and release her to chase a squirrel after she gives you eye contact? The possibilities are endless.


The final reinforcer I’m going to cover is praise. Honestly, I think it’s the weakest of them all. The human voice has no inherent value to a dog. You pretty much have to associate it with something pleasurable for a dog to find it rewarding. It is not useless, however, and I do use it on occasion:

* Praise can be a great bridge between the mark and the treat Sometimes I fumble getting treats out and delivered to Risa.
* It’s a way to let your dog know what they’re doing is right when you can’t reward them yet I use praise a lot when I’m competing. I can’t bring food in the ring with me but I want Risa to know that she’s doing great. The praise helps her know that I like what she’s doing and keeps her focused on the task at hand.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in regards to training your dog. (I tend to use the same basic treats for training all the time.) Do yourself and your dog a favor and try a new reward. You may be surprised how enthusiastic your dog becomes when you change things up a bit. 🙂

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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