I find that a lot of clients don’t understand how to use rewards like treats. As I’ve mentioned in my Top 8 Reinforcers for Dogs, each type of reinforcement has different values within that type.
We all are motivated by something; this is also true for pets. Many things can motivate your pet and reinforce behaviors as I talk about in Top 8 Reinforcers for Dogs. Food is just ONE of those things and not all dogs are motivated by food. People are the same way! Food is the easiest and most convenient reinforcer of behaviors with dogs and a great place for people to start with most dogs until they build their relationship up with that dog. This article is to help you make sure that you’re using Food/Treat reinforcers the RIGHT way and how to get the most of your training when using them!
Just like currencies have different values to humans. Food has different values to dogs, depending on what you’re using and how difficult the task you’re asking is.
The chart below explains this all, but the gist is simple. Match the reward to make it worth it for the dog to WANT to do it again. If I ask you to watch TV for $20 – you’ll probably do it. A lot of people will do it for free. BUT, if I ask you to watch TV for 10 hours straight and you have other things that you value more than $20, then your “cost” to do that task just went up. But we all know there are some people that would TOTALLY watch TV for 10 hours straight for free… even more so if it paid anything at all. Think about the last show or movie series that you binge-watched!
Dogs are the same way. Some dogs are SO motivated by food, even low-value treats make everything worth doing. These are the awesome dogs you can train using their dry dog food kibble or hard crunchy cookie treats or cheerios.
Others, you give them a difficult task and you better ante up! Diamond level treat please.
Some dogs, you can wean easily off treating so much, while others take coaxing their whole life. Remember, you should always reward at an unpredictable frequency to keep the relationship alive!- See Dating Your Dog.
A few quick tips for you when using food as a reinforcer for any behavior:
- Train BEFORE meals and keep sessions short before they fill up!
- The hungrier you are, the more motivated you are to go to a restaurant, even if it isn’t your favorite food or if someone you don’t particularly care for, will be there.
- Variety is the spice of life.
- I ALWAYS have different flavors, different brands, different textures in my treat bag. They never know what they’re going to get so they keep working hard for me as long as I’m paying the right “price” often enough for the task I’m asking them to do. This is also why humans play the lottery! You may win $1, $5, or $1,000,000. If enough people win every so often that JACKPOT prize, the rest of the state continues to play!
- A treat pouch makes a world of difference!
- The timing of your rewards is a game-changer. Reward IMMEDIATELY and the dog will want to do it again!!! If you need to go find a treat in the pantry across the house, you lost it. The moment is gone.
- Flavors matter. Brands matter. Textures matter.
- Try everything with something your dog would find difficult and THAT will tell you what your dog really likes. Just because you love Italian food, doesn’t mean you love all Italian restaurants or all Italian dishes. It’s the same with dogs.
- Do not overuse Diamond and Gold level treats.
- If you do, the dog loses the value of those. Billionaires don’t value $100 as you or I might. When you have a lot of something, you take it for granted. Use those values of food/treats when you REALLY need them for something difficult with your dog. Your first several public visits somewhere or if you have a reactive dog, use them to get their attention on you instead of the other dog. Once the “new” task becomes easier for the dog, try dropping the value of the food or mixing in the lower value in there with intermittent high value and see if the dog still behaves and responds. If not, you may have backed off too soon.
Learn what TRULY motivates YOUR dog. This is the beauty of the Training Journey – you develop such an incredible bond between your dog and yourself that you know them SO WELL. And because you took the time to really learn what your dog wants; your dog WILL reciprocate it. They will want to learn what you want too! And THAT’s what makes Relationship-Based Training so amazing!