Training Tip A Guide to Using Food Rewards

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What's your favorite thing? What's your spouse's favorite thing? How about your best friend's? Coworker's? Are they all the same? Probably not!

Your dog has a different favorite thing, too. What motivates one dog is not necessarily what motivates another dog. But there is a motivator that most dogs love — food! Using treats during training is the best way to guarantee that your dog will repeat the behavior you want. How long would you continue to go to work if you didn’t receive a paycheck? Your dog feels the same way — he is more likely to sit, if he often gets rewarded for sitting.

Training with positive reinforcement has the added benefit of creating a dog that wants to be trained. However, not all dog treats are created equal. A few dogs will work for pieces of dry cereal or a hard biscuit, but for many dogs, this is like expecting a toddler to find broccoli rewarding. The receiver defines what positive reinforcement is; this means your dog, not you, gets to choose what is most rewarding to him. The more distracting the environment in which you are training, then the more motivating the treat needs to be to keep your dog's attention.

 

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Here is a breakdown of what most dogs would define as their hierarchy of rewards:

  • At home with few distractions (low value): kibble, carrots, ice cubes, green beans, or hard biscuits.
  • In your yard (medium value): commercial training treats, cheese, or jerky-type treats.
  • At the park (high value): chicken, hot dog, hamburger, deli meat, or liver.

These are not static, and not every dog follows this breakdown. Offer different types of food rewards to find out what your dog likes best, and build your dog’s reward hierarchy from there. A few more things to keep in mind:

  • When in an unfamiliar environment among distractions, or when learning something new, your dog’s job is harder. Just like you would expect to get paid more for doing a more difficult job, your dog should be paid more, too.
  • When teaching something new or practicing in a new environment, increase the value of your treats. As with any treat used for training, use small pieces. Treats should be pea-sized or smaller, so your dog doesn't get too full.
  • The more often you reward your dog for doing what you ask, the more likely it is that he'll do what you ask in the future.

To get even more tips about training your dog, enroll in the AKC GoodDog! Helpline and gain access to our professional trainers by phone, seven days a week. Find out more about enrolling here.