Nancy Kerns: Hi! I am Nancy Kerns, Editor of the Whole Dog Journal and today we're going to talk about the use of rewards in dog training. Rewards provide the incentive for a dog to work with us and reinforce the behaviors that we are after. But in order to be truly reinforcing the reward has to be something the dog really enjoys.
For example, food treats work really well as rewards. But it's not rewarding to the dog to be given a cookie he doesn't care for. It's also unhelpful to try to train your dog with a type of treat that he quickly tires of. In order to be truly rewarding, so enticing that the dog is highly motivated to work for it an owner needs to try a lot of types of treats to find a variety. You'll need some that the dog likes, loves, and goes crazy for.
Petting or scratching a dog's favorite spot can be a very valuable reward, but again, only if the dog likes it. Petting is a reward for the dog when you can see clear signals that he likes it. When he moves into the petting, softens his face, and lowers his ears and wags his tail. If he ducks away from your hands or shakes you off insisting on petting him anyway actually constitutes a punishment.
Trainers often have to teach owners to stop reflexively petting dogs who don't like it before they can make progress. Similarly, praise can be a reward for dogs to show that they really like it. Most dogs learn to like praise when it's paired consistently with other things they like; such as food rewards.
The chance to play with a favorite toy can also be a big reward for those dogs who like to play with toys. If you use a reward that the dog does not enjoy, it won't reinforce the behavior you're trying to build. Experienced trainers take note whenever they see an animal enjoying something that they can provide, certain types of food, scratching in a favorite place, or a toy. Each of these things will become valuable tools in the continuing education of your dog.