10 ways to reward your dog
1 Pay up!
Always reward your dog when he performs an action you want — it may sound obvious but can be easy to overlook sometimes. Once you’ve established a behaviour, such as not jumping up at you in greeting, or sitting promptly when asked to, you may begin to take it for granted. But no matter how much you enjoy your job or like your boss, you wouldn’t work for free, so don’t expect your dog to either! Rewarding him helps to keep him motivated, and without it, his responses start to become half-hearted or even non-existent. Rewards come in lots of different forms — observe your dog and what things he likes best to help you decide which will be the most effective. For most, food and toys top the list, followed by praise and touch. Reward him as soon as possible after he’s performed an action you want so that he makes an association between the two.
2 The right reward
Tailor the reward you give according to the difficulty of the action your dog has performed, using the lowest value one for behaviours that are well established and when there are little or no distractions. When learning anything new, or in challenging situations, the reward your dog receives will need to be more motivating, and selecting the right one is important to encourage him to want to repeat that action again. Having a variety of different ways in which you can reward your dog makes it easier for you to select the right incentive, and will also ensure that you can always use a reward that is appropriate to the surroundings you’re in.
3 Feeling great
Don’t underestimate the power of touch, which can be another effective way in which you can let your pet know you’re pleased with him. Stroking or gently scratching him with your fingertips is better than patting, which can appear a rather aggressive action to some dogs.
4 Say it with food
Most dogs enjoy food treats, but these will work best when your dog isn’t feeling stuffed full after a meal; if he’s a little bit hungry it makes it a much more desirable and appreciated reward. When training, using a treat pouch will ensure you have a plentiful supply of tasty titbits ready to hand whenever you want one. Ideally offer very small pieces of food so they are quick and easy to swallow, allowing you to get on with asking for another action — and also so your dog’s tummy doesn’t get filled up too quickly. Remember to take food rewards into account when calculating his daily food intake, so he doesn’t start to pile on unwanted pounds.
5 Sounds good!
Your voice can also be used to reward your dog — but make sure that you really do sound pleased when praising him, rather than telling him how clever he is in a dull, fl at monotone. Pitch your voice a little higher and inject a bit of enthusiasm, although if you have a nervous or very excitable dog you may need to moderate this a little. Avoid being loud though — most dogs have excellent hearing and you don’t need to shout at them; if you do, it could be misinterpreted.
6 Top treats
Grade food treats according to their level of desirability; even greedy dogs who gobble everything down differentiate between something special and something bland. At the top end of the scale, ‘five star’ rewards might include pieces of cooked chicken, sausage, or cheese, with plain biscuit treats down at the bottom. Carry a variety of treats around with you, so you can be selective as to which you reward your dog with; don’t hand out the highest value ones all the time as it will devalue them and your dog may refuse to work for anything less than top dollar. Save them for when you’re introducing new training exercises, when asking your dog to do something he finds particularly challenging, or if he produces a particularly spectacular effort.
7 Off you go!
Letting your dog go off to play can also be a great reward and a way in which you can make training exercises work even better for you, for example by asking for a sit or ‘watch me’ before unclipping his lead when out on a walk. Releasing him again to go and have fun can also be really helpful with recall training.
Although most of us think of food as being the main training aid, using toys as a reward can be just as motivating for many dogs, although with some it can be a case of finding the right toy first. Ideally, find one you can use to interact with each other — a tuggy toy perhaps, or one that you can throw for your dog to retrieve. Rewarding with a brief game can make a different and exciting alternative to rewarding with food, which can be helpful if your dog’s counting calories, as it might even help him burn a few!
Grade toys as you would food, and once you’ve found which one is his favourite, don’t allow him free access to it — keep it tucked away out of his sight and reach at home so you can reserve it as a high status reward.
9 Don’t do that — do this
Reward only those behaviours you like and want to happen again; sometimes this is easier said than done. Attention is a massive reward for most dogs, which is why they’ll often persist in doing something in spite of the displeasure you show. If your dog jumps up and gets pushed down or shouted at, he might interpret it as being some kind of game — but even if he doesn’t like your response, any attention is better than none. In such an instance, teaching an alternative action (such as sitting or going to his bed) enables you to reward an appropriate behaviour rather than inadvertently rewarding one you don’t want.
10 The fruit machine principle
When teaching anything new, reward with an appropriate level of treat. Once your dog’s got the hang of it however, appeal to the inner gambler in him by starting to vary the reward. Will it be praise, a game, another treat (possibly an especially tasty one), or a scratch behind an ear?
Keeping it unpredictable and keeping him guessing can help you sustain his interest, and can get him to try harder than if he knows what’s coming.