Reward based training isn’t always treat training.
It’s common knowledge that most dogs are highly motivated by a variety of tasty morsels. I can’t say I blame them: if someone offered me a chocolate croissant in exchange for a simple task, I’d take them up on it without a moments hesitation. Treats are undoubtedly one of the leading choices in reward-based training since they’re simple, easy, and often quite effective. Treats, however, are also an easy way to lose sight of the plethora of other effective rewards trainers have at their disposal.
The most common misconception about reward-based training is that it is synonymous with treat training. Many people fear it due to seemingly legitimate concerns such as their pet gaining excess weight due to the influx of treats they’re now receiving. While these are certainly areas for every attentive pet owner to consider, they simply become irrelevant when the pre-conceived notion of reward=treat is challenged.
According to the dictionary, a reward is something given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement. In this framework, there are as many reward options to choose from as things your dog finds rewarding. Note the key part of that phrase is things that YOUR dog finds rewarding. While there are often many cross-overs between different pets, each dog has their own personality and thus their own set of things they find rewarding.
Here are a few ideas of rewards that are outside of the treat box:
There is a reason that your dog likes to play with their toys: they find doing so rewarding and pleasurable. Instead of offering a treat for a requested behavior, offer a toy or play time instead. This reward can actually be reverse engineered too; does your dog hop in anticipation for you to toss their ball? Make them sit before you throw it. My Great Dane mix absolutely adores trying to ‘catch’ the squeegee on the other side of the shower door. While at first this seemed frustrating, we realized it was an opportunity to reinforce some of his basic commands. Now, before we squeegee across, we make him sit or lay down. In exchange, he gets the reward of chasing the ever-elusive squeegee.
Rarely have I met a dog whose heart doesn’t soar at the prospect of going for a walk. I’ve even had many people ask me how to manage their normal Dr. Jekyll of a dog who transforms into Mr. Hyde as soon as the leash is even touched. Running around the house, barking excitedly, jumping, and more, are natural reactions to such an exciting prospect. (I admittedly confuse the dogs every time I do this, though.) Once again, this excitement is directed towards the rewarding experience of going out for a walk. Find ways to use that to impact your training routine.
Okay, this one seems silly, I’ll admit. But dogs love their people. By nature they are pack animals, and modern domesticated dogs have been bred with loving, snuggly traits. Does your dog just love to be pet? Is there that perfect spot just behind their ears they always want scratched? Teach them manners while also indulging their need for attention.
Does that spark your imagination? I encourage you to start looking for the little things that just make your pooch happy. Find a way to provide them while also strengthening your training. I mean, what could be a more fun then looking for things that make your dog happy?