Most people I know would not go to work if they weren’t getting paid and if they were forced to, their motivation to do a good job would be pretty low. When dogs enjoy training, they learn better and so we use rewards in training. This does not necessarily mean that we are bribing the dog or that the dog will only work for food. If it’s done correctly, this won’t be a problem. We use rewards for teaching new behaviours and then we phase them out and use only for effort and improvement on those behaviours, constantly setting the bar higher for the dog to earn a reward.
So, what is the best reward to use? I cannot tell you one single thing that makes the best reward. This is because it depends on the individual dog and what he or she finds rewarding, at that time.
Rewards can be food treats, toys or life rewards such as freedom and access to desired resources. Being let through a doorway or off the leash can be rewards. A game of fetch or tug can be used for a great intense reward if the dog enjoys that kind of game. Think of your dog’s highest value reward and use that to reward really important or challenging tasks such as a recall under distraction.
One of my dogs, Chester, loves the Frisbee so much that if I give him a meaty bone, wait for him to be getting into it and then say, “Frisbee” he will spit out the bone and come over looking for the Frisbee! This tells me that a Frisbee is very high on his list of things he likes!
I really like to use toy rewards for behaviours that are already established. Tug is an especially great reward because the dog has to be engaged with the handler to get the reward. The tugging will only happen if the handler is on the other end. Before using tug as an obedience reward though, you should have clear rules and a clear grab command and out command (let go).
When it comes to food rewards, what works best? Again it depends on what the dog likes but there are some practical considerations too. When training, you want the rewards to be timed well. A large or crunchy, chewy treat is not practical. We want the dog to be able to take it and swallow it fairly fast so that we can move on to the next reward. If you have a large chewy treat and you give it to your dog for a reward, you will then be waiting a while before your dog is finished. If the rewards are too big, your dog will also get full quickly and training will progress slowly. Soft, meaty, smelly treats work best. The dog only needs a small taste each time so use small treats that match the size of the dog. Also make sure you don’t use any foods that could make your dog sick.
When training with food, you want to have your dog hungry at the beginning, so don’t feed a meal just before. If you’ve been using food rewards, deduct the amount from the dog’s diet so that your dog doesn’t put on excess weight.
Remember to use something the dog enjoys whether it be food, pats and praise, a ball, tug toy, Frisbee or whatever else your dog loves. Above all, make sure both of you are having fun and you will get the best results!