I was leading a training class the other day that included a mildly fearful dog. The dog was responding well to cues, able to do the behaviors, and seemed to be handling the environment. But she did not seem to be having a lot of fun. Her human companion suggested she switch from food rewards to a toy reward, as her pup really responded well to play. Wow! You should have seen the difference in that dog’s demeanor when her toy came out. Suddenly her ears perked up, she had a bounce in her movements, you could see the muscles in her body relax, and she started offering behaviors. For this pup, in that environment, play was a much more powerful reinforcement than food.
What type of reward will work best for your dog? The answer of course is “It depends.” It depends on the dog, the environment, and where you are at in training. Some dogs like treats better than play. For other dogs, it is the other way around. Some dogs do best with play at home, but treats when out and about. Some dogs learn best with treats (perhaps because they are over-excited when the toy comes out), but once they know a behavior, the toy becomes the ultimate reward.
How do you know what is best for your dog? Ask your dog! Bring out a few things your dog enjoys—treat, tug toy, and a ball for example. Test each out and see what your dog likes best. Keep in mind though that other things may come into the picture at different times. For example, is your dog hungry? Food might be most powerful in that moment. Does your dog need to be active or is your dog tired? This can impact the power of play.
Besides food and toys, other types of reinforcement might include good old fashion attention—a “good dog”, eye contact and even a nice scratch on the chest; running and chasing you; the opportunity to play or visit other dogs; sniffing a great smell on the ground; and exploring off leash in the woods or on the beach. Each of these will have different impact depending on the environment, your dog’s level of training, and your dog’s individual preferences.
What does your dog find most rewarding and how do you know it is his or her favorite?