Reinforcement–anything that, when added or removed, makes a behavior more likely to happen again.
Although I use and suggest food as reinforcement during classes, it is not the ONLY type of reinforcement that exists. Since food is such a common reward, for this post, it isn’t going to be the focus.
You can add ANYTHING your dog enjoys as a reward or take away anything unpleasant that your dog doesn’t really love as a reward (like removing a leash). Being creative with your rewards can take your training to the next level.
Let’s take a moment and look at some of the different types of rewards that I use…
It’s all about the games
I really do my best to make games a big part of my training. I may initiate a game of tug, a game of fetch, a game of frisbee, or access to agility obstacles as a reward for desired behavior. So, a dog responding to a recall may have a ball thrown as a reward or the dog completes a heel pattern and I whip out a tug from my pocket and we play a great game. What’s fun about using games is that many of the games I reward my dogs with ARE training games so we are working and playing. For example, if my dogs recall, I may reward them with a rapid game of “Follow Me,” which I use to teach default attention and the foundations for loose leash walking. I also may reward loose leash walking by getting to play hand targeting games. Maybe I’ll reward Rio for running through some basic obedience cues by getting to run through a tunnel or do some of his favorite tricks (yes, you CAN reinforce behavior by letting dogs do a trick that they find enjoyable).
Run around go Crazy!
Yes, I’m serious. You would be surprised just how many dogs would LOVE to chase their handler and just PLAY with them. We do so much walking with our dogs that one of the most effective rewards to use during loose leash walking work is to reward nice walking by getting to RUNNNNNN for a short while. You can also drop to the ground and roll around with the puppers playing–how often do you do this (probably never), since it’s a rare occurrence, it becomes VERY valuable if your dog likes that sort of thing. Dogs, like Shayne, who like rough play can certainly be rewarded by being thumped on the sides, pushed away and otherwise roughed up (Rio on the other hand would not appreciate this treatment). This type of reward is fantastic because it really makes the handler the source of joy… it’s not the food the handler gives or the toy the handler throws–it’s really the handler in all his/her glory that is the reward. You become the cookie. *Warning, for some dogs this type of play is NOT rewarding at all, so know your dog.
This type of reward is really touch and go for me when I see handlers “rewarding” their dogs. If you are using cuddles as a reward you HAVE TO make sure your dog actually ENJOYS the cuddles. I can’t count the number of times I watch a handler “reward” their dog with petting and the dog is ducking out of the way of the hand and is trying to avoid being pet. For those dogs, the petting is NOT a reward…. it’s NOT something the want. So what’s happening is the dog is actually being punished. Petting/affection can be fantastic rewards for some dogs (Shayne is a dog who LOVES cuddles and butt skritches) but it can absolutely be unwanted for other dogs (Rio is like this, he really doesn’t like being cuddled, he tolerates it but doesn’t really like it) so using petting as a reward can actually backfire. I certainly encourage using petting, cuddles, and skritches as rewards but you have to check in with your dog–is it REALLY rewarding for them or are they dodging your petting or just tolerating it.
Like with cuddles, there are many times when people are trying to reward their dog with praise but the praise is not at all reinforcing to the dog. I see a lot of people rewarding their dog with a simple, low tone “good boy” and the dogs are not even engaging with the handlers or acknowledging the ‘reward’. I use praise regularly with Shayne and Rio for mundane tasks but when I use praise, I use happy and excited tones (partnered with lots of attention and excited/inviting motions). When I praise Shayne with happy excited words, it sends her into a fit of cuddles–she spins and leans into me, almost rolling over on to my feet just begging for cuddles. For her, the excited praise is definitely rewarding–but I don’t wonder if it’s the attention and focus given to her more than the praise itself. Like with cuddles, praise can certainly be a great reward for some dogs but you have to ask the dog, “is this really rewarding?”
This is an area that I think owners don’t take nearly enough advantage of in their training with their dog. Once a dog knows a behavior, I think it is perfectly acceptable to use life rewards as a way to reinforce behaviors. There are so many things that we could use as rewards for our dogs but few people take advantage of the resources they control. You can reward a dog by putting on a leash or taking a leash off. You can reward loose leash walking by cuing them to go sniff something fun. You can reward your dog by letting them outside–you can reward them by letting them back inside. A car ride can be a reward but getting out of the car can be a reward. Getting to play with other dogs can certainly be a reward. Think about what your dog wants in life… if you can control that or control access to that, you can use it as a reward!