The key to effective training is using treats the right way to reward your dog’s tricks, says Kate Mornement.
Obedience training is one of the major keys to successfully bonding with your dog. A well-trained dog is a pleasure to own and, as a result, tends to be included in more activities and spend more quality time with its owner.
Well-trained dogs are less likely to be surrendered to animal shelters because of behavioural problems and, in the unfortunate event that an owner has to surrender a beloved pet, they are more adoptable than untrained dogs. In other words, a well-trained dog could be expected to live a richer life in terms of human companionship and experiences.
Over the years, reward-based training has increased in popularity because most dog owners prefer to reward their dogs rather than punish them, but it is also very effective. Dogs, like us, are more likely to repeat behaviour if there’s something in it for them – if it’s rewarding. Behaviourists call the rewards ‘reinforcers’.
Simply put, ‘reinforcers’ are rewards that teach a dog to repeat desired behaviour by creating a reinforcing a positive association with that behaviour.
Our different personalities and temperaments mean that we are motivated by different rewards. For example, the motivation for some people finding a new job might be the money they will be paid, while others may be motivated by the challenges the job will provide or by social interaction with their colleagues. In these examples, the money, challenges and social interaction are the reinforcers.
Similarly, dogs differ in their motivations and what they find rewarding. While the majority of dogs are motivated by food, some may be more motivated by play or by the opportunity to interact with their owner. Even within these groups there can be differences in the degree of the reward. For example, a dog motivated by food might be more motivated by a piece of cooked chicken than a piece of kibble.
Similarly, a dog motivated by play might be more motivated by a new squeaky toy than by a tennis ball it plays with on a regular basis. Because the chicken or the new squeaky toy are novel, the dog values them more, so they are more rewarding. Meanwhile, the kibble and tennis ball are familiar, less exciting, of lesser value and therefore less reinforcing.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Those dogs that will do anything for a piece of kibble or a game with their old tennis ball prove that different dogs are motivated by different things and some are more easily pleased than others.
When training a dog, it is important to first consider what motivates it so that you can find out what will be the best and most effective reinforcer. Once this is established, use the knowledge of what motivates your dog to your advantage to get the most out of training.
Another important consideration is that any dog’s level of motivation for a particular reinforcer may change throughout the day. For example, food treats will be less reinforcing after a meal, therefore they are a less effective reinforcer for a dog motivated by treats after it has eaten.
When you are working training into your regular routine, figure out when your dog would be most driven to earn the treats, toys or affection – usually this will be after a period without access to the reinforcer or to similar items – so that your dog will be highly motivated to work for the reinforcer.
Three types of reinforcers commonly used in reward-based training include treats, toys and affection.
By far the most widely used reinforcer is food or treats. Most dogs are motivated by food because it satisfies the very basic need to eat and satisfy hunger.
It’s important to choose a treat that is particularly rewarding to your dog. Try a variety of treats to see which one is your dog’s favourite. Small pieces of cooked chicken, hot dog pieces or liver treats are irresistible to most dogs.
Once you have established your dog’s most rewarding treat, don’t feed it to your dog regularly – only use the reinforcer during training sessions to maintain its high value.
Dogs love to play and, for dogs motivated by toys and games, you need to establish what sort of toys are the most rewarding.
Does your dog prefer playing tug? If so, a durable tug toy will be the best reward. If your dog is more into fetch, a new fetch toy might be the best.
Again, it is important that the reinforcing toy is only used during training sessions to maintain its high value and effectiveness. Use other toys for normal play sessions.
Some dogs are people pleasers and are not particularly motivated by food or toys. These dogs love nothing more than praise and affection from their owners.
Training these dogs can be quite convenient, as you don’t need any treats or toys on hand. All you need is your voice and hand, and to find out what kind of affection your dog prefers. Is it a scratch under the chin or massaging the ears?
Once you have figured out your dog’s most rewarding form of affection and established that it is a reward for good performance in training, you will need to hold off on that type of affection outside of training.
Of course, you still need to show your dog affection – just as an owner who rewards with food treats still needs to feed their dog outside of training sessions – just not with that particular scratch under the chin or rub on the belly.
When using reinforcers to reward a desired behaviour it is important that the reward is delivered during or immediately after the behaviour. If you wait too long between the desired behaviour and the reward, the dog may not make the connection between the two, and its learning can be hindered.
This is where a ‘bridge’ can be useful. A bridge is simply a noise (such as the click delivered by a clicker) or a word (such as ‘good’ or ‘yes’). The bridge is given during the behaviour and bridges the time lag between the behaviour and the delivery of the reinforcer.
Reinforcers are most effective in training new behaviours when they are certain, quick and strong. Once the dog knows a new command and reliably performs it, food and play reinforcers can gradually be reduced or even phased out, but verbal praise should always be used to maintain desired behaviours once they’ve been established.
Kate Mornement is an animal behaviourist and owner of Pets Behaving Badly.