Rewarding without Food

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Reward is an integral part of training, and there are many ways in which a dog can be rewarded.  While food or treats may seem like the easiest way to reward your dog for good behavior, it may not always be the best or most effective way.  Food can have limitations as a reward.  Does the dog like the food?  Does he like it enough to do what you are asking?  Will he do the same task without food?  What about dogs that are not food motivated?

Rewarding your dog without the use of food can often be a much easier, convenient, and effective way to instill, capture, and encourage desired behavior.  It is important to understand how dogs learn, and what motivates them before deciding how to reward. A properly timed reward can boost your dog’s confidence, and increase his trust in you.

How Dogs Learn

Similar to humans, dogs learn in a variety of ways.  Dogs, however, do not speak in words; they do not understand any of the human languages.  So, we must find other ways to communicate with them.  How exactly do dogs learn?

  • Trial and Error – A dog learns from being successful and from failing. Dogs are always learning; they are always paying attention.  If they try jumping up and it gets them the attention they want (petting, rubbing, etc) then they learn that jumping works.  If, however, the result of the jump is a knee bump in the chest, or a pop on the leash they learn that jumping is not the best way to get your attention.
  • Mapping – Showing a dog what is required in small steps. Linking these small steps together gives the dog a mental map or sequence of what is required for any given command or task.  This behavior pattern comes from the practice and repetition of a particular routine on a regular basis.
  • Behavior Modeling – Dogs can also learn from other dogs. Dogs can learn a lot by watching other dogs and by being encouraged to join in.  Certain obedience commands, tricks, and even things like how to swim can be learned simply by watching others.  This can be a double edged sword, however, as dogs can also learn bad habits by watching others.
  • Reflection – Many trainers end their training sessions on a high note, and then allow the dog some time to rest and process the information. This gives the dog a good association with training, and makes it more desirable for the dog to want to repeat the last task.  Giving a dog time to process and reflect on what just happened can work with both obedience commands, and with bad habits.  Reprimanding a dog for a bad habit (if caught in the act) works the same way as giving praise for good behavior.

Encouragement, Motivation and Willingness to Learn

In order for your dog to learn, he has to want to learn.  In most cases, all dogs can be motivated and encouraged to learn; however, it is up to the trainer to discover what will motivate each particular dog.  Several things have to be taken into consideration when deciding on what type of reward to use:

  • Personality – Is the dog outgoing, shy, fearful, or aggressive? Each type of personality will need different types and amounts of reward.  The manner, frequency, and intensity of reward will vary based on the personality as well.
  • Temperament – How much energy does the dog have? Does the dog have any natural drives or abilities?  The reward will need to appeal to the dog.  Chasing a ball may not be much of a reward to a Mastiff with lower energy; just as a couple of pats on the head may not motivate a high energy Labrador retriever.
  • Breed – Knowing the breed history and what it was originally bred for can help determine the type of reward needed.
  • The particular task being taught – Are you trying to develop hunting or herding skills? Are you teaching basic obedience, or retrieval?  The reward should fit the task.  Allowing your dog to shake or “kill” and object may not be best suited to obedience, but may make sense for a hunting dog.

Types of Reward

As discussed above, there are many types of rewards that can be given to a dog for a job well done.  Again, it is important to reward appropriately for the task you are teaching, and to use something that really motivates your dog.  While food is a requirement for all creatures, it may not be the best reward you can give your dog.  If your dog is working for food, you may find that his motivation is gone just as soon as the treat is.  Food can be a good way to introduce and encourage desired behaviors, but as your dog leaves the puppy stage it is important to use a form of reward that can help develop a bond between dog and owner. Rewards can take the form of:

  • Praise – Both verbal and physical – great for teaching obedience commands and general good behavior
  • Play – Chasing a ball or retrieving an object – great for retrieval hunting, or dogs with high retrieval drive
  • Hunting – Finding hidden objects – can be very rewarding for dogs that love to use their nose (hunting, tracking)
  • “Killing” or Shaking – Can be used for hunting dogs, or where a high prey drive is being established
  • Food – Can be useful for puppies or even trick training, but should not be relied upon for serious obedience or advanced training

Rewarding with Praise

A dog that is working for your praise is a dog that wants to please you.  Rewarding with praise will help increase the bond you already have with your dog.  Your dog wants your praise; he wants you to touch and pet him.  By using praise as a reward for a desired behavior you are more likely to increase the frequency and reliability of the particular behavior.

Verbal Praise

Using verbal praise is all about using enough emotion to convey to your dog that you are pleased with him.  Simply saying, “Good dog”, in a monotone voice won’t cut it.  Verbal praise should be upbeat and as full of emotion as you can muster.  A good rule of thumb for verbal praise:  Your dog’s tail should be wagging after being praised.  If it is not, then you may need to put a little more emotion and excitement into your praise.  Some guidelines to follow when using verbal praise include:

  • Use this when your dog is in a command – physical praise may cause your dog to break the command
  • Use a lot of emotion – you need to sound happy and convince your dog that you are pleased
  • Smile when praising – dogs are great are reading your facial features and can distinguish between smiles and scowls
  • Avoid too much direct eye contact – your dog is great at reading your face and too much eye contact can cause the dog to pop out of a sit or down and come to you
  • Avoid using your dog’s name – again, this is something that may cause your dog to come to you – instead say things like, “good [insert command here]”, or, “good job”, “good boy/girl”

Physical Praise

Using physical praise is a great way to improve your bond with your dog.  It can also be a highly desired reward to your dog.  Physical praise will take the form of petting, touching, and rubbing.  Sometimes it will be slow and soothing, other times it may be fast and invigorating.   Knowing when to use each type of touching is very important, and will also be based on the personality of the dog.  Some guidelines to using physical praise include:

  • Save this for after releasing your dog from a command – petting while in a command may cause him to break the command
  • Use this along with verbal praise
  • Avoid mindless petting – petting your dog simply because it exists can devalue the praising during training – make your dog work for this reward
  • Use slower, soothing praise with dogs that are timid, frightened, or over excited; faster, more enthusiastic praise can be used as the dog begins to open up, or with happy-go-lucky dogs
  • Be aware of any areas in which the dog is sensitive to touch – touching these areas may scare the dog, or cause it to even snap at you – if this happens you may need to work on desensitizing your dog to touching in these areas

Types of Physical Touch

When using physical praise there are several different forms that can be used; and every dog has certain types of touching they prefer.  Find what works best for your dog and the situation.

  • The Stroke – A common movement where the flat of the hand glides down with slight pressure over the dogs body
  • The Circular Rub – Using the flat of the hand on the front of the chest
  • The Pat – A drumming of the dog with the flat of the hand to various degrees of intensity on the dog’s body. Usually the best place to pat a dog is on its withers of side, and occasionally under the chest.  Never on top of the head.
  • The Scratch – Using the tips of your fingers under the chin, behind the ears, on the rear towards the tail, sometimes on the top of the head. A two handed “massage” up and down the length of the body can help release tension.
  • The Grip – A kneading motion where the hand takes gentle grip of hair, loose skin, and sometimes even muscle tissue. The shoulders, the chest, and even the base of the back respond to this movement.