Rewards (reinforcers) – what to use

Draft – may be amended

People often ask about what rewards they should use, so I thought it might be helpful to make some suggestions.


First – Why use a reward?

A reward is anything which reinforces a ‘behaviour’.  They are used because a behaviour which is reinforced is more likely to happen again.  We need to aim to reinforce those behaviours we like while being careful not to reinforce those we would prefer not to happen.  To be effective rewards must be given instantly following the desired behaviour.  Using a ‘reward marker’ (something that says the reward is coming) such as a clicker or a click word can improve accuracy.


What can be used as a ‘reward’?

The first thing to be said about rewards is that only your dog knows what he finds really rewarding.  It could be food, and for nearly every dog there is some kind of food that he will find highly rewarding, but also toys, play, petting, praise and access to the environment can be used.



To use food as a reward you need to know what your dog likes best in the world.  It could be liver, liver cake, black pudding, sardines, roast salmon cheese, bread, raw carrot, frankfurter even the kibble you feed him for his meals.  Smelly is often best but you do need to observe your dog and know which are top, middle and lesser favourites.

I would suggest that your dog’s very top treats need to be kept for the things your dog finds most difficult.  For instance I keep flakes of roast salmon and liver cooked with a little garlic for George’s behavioural work, which he finds very difficult, whereas in training new actions I use things like frankfurter and cheese or cold roast meat.  For routine things which are familiar I might just use kibble as an occasional reinforcement and then surprise him with something more exciting every now and again.  (For further information on the type and use of food see video).

Food can be used for virtually any training including luring, shaping and capturing behaviours as well as modifying problem behaviours (for an introduction to basic training take a look at these videos  What is Clicker Training  or How to train without a Clicker  and How to Train a Dog with Positive Reinforcement )

When using food a good starting place is ‘leave it’ (Default leave it ) as this will teach your dog not only to wait until rewards are given and resist the temptation to snatch but also the long term benefits of a good leave.

Once you are achieving a reliable response start reducing rewards, so they are given only on a random basis, with further reductions as progress continues until they have been faded out (more on variable schedules may be found in any of the books listed at the end).

Pros – strongly reinforcing for most dogs.  If your dog is fed dry food the whole or part of the food ration may be used to support training

Cons – may not be suitable for food aggressive (resource guarding) dogs in certain circumstances such as the close presence of other dogs.  You have to remember to take them everywhere with you and or place strategically to be readily available.  Ham and cheese are high in fat and salt so should be used very sparingly.  Too much liver can be harmful and also may cause diarrhoea in pups if too much is used.

Note: food rewards should be tiny, no larger than a pea.  Small dogs only need minute rewards, the size of crumbs, so the dog doesn’t fill up to fast and loose interest.   Lots of small rewards, one at a time is more effective than one big one


Toys and play

Some dogs will respond better to toys and play.  Again it is a case of knowing your dog but for many a ball or squeaky toy will hit the spot.  A ball on a string may provide more scope, both in terms of being able to make it do exciting things, as well as having control over it (there is a good bit about tug-toys in Jean Donaldson’s ‘The Culture Clash’ that some people will find useful in this respect)

A recent guest speaker at the club, from the London Transport Police, said they select dogs that are totally ball focussed as they use a ball to reward all their dogs.

Pros – can be strongly reinforcing for some dogs, particularly balls a ball obsessed dog may be prepared to do anything for a ball.  Play can be good to relax dogs and reduce the build up of stress during training.

Cons – may not be suitable for resource guarding dogs in certain circumstances such as the presence of other dogs.  As with food rewards you have to remember to take them everywhere.  Slower than food and there may be a retrieval issue.


Attention – Praise and petting

In many cases praise and petting may be more highly valued by the trainer than the recipient.  Think of your average five year old – would he prefer to be patted on the head and told he is a good boy, a packet of sweets or a new toy.  In most circumstances I think one of the latter options would be more popular!  Not that praise should be underestimated; a child can stand an inch taller and glow with pleasure if he is praised for success in front of his class at school (or cringe and hide his face!).  It is a case of knowing your dog, watching his body language, knowing where a scratch or tickle might be appreciated and using it at the right time.  Praise needs to be enthusiastic and achieve an appropriate response from the dog.  A throw-away ‘good dog’ is not a reward.  Often if praise or petting are used in conjunction with other rewards at the beginning they will become rewarding in their own right in time.

Every dog, is his own animal, some dogs just love praise and/or petting.  As with any other reward it is a case of knowing your dog and using what he finds motivating.

Pros – an ever available choice nothing to be forgotten or left behind.

Cons – Some dogs may find praise to be only mildly rewarding and some dogs actively dislike petting, at least until they have ‘learned’ to enjoy it.  Dogs can be taught to think of praise and petting as a reward.

Many dogs, though, crave attention, any attention.  This can be a trap for the unwary because dogs that find any attention better than none may find a reprimanding for bad behaviour reinforcing (think 2yr old tantrums in the aisle in the supermarket scolding, shaking and smacking effect no improvement and the noise may well increase)


The Environment

Access to the environment can be utilised in various ways, for instance access to the garden or time off lead.  It is easy to reward a dog for sitting at the back door quietly when he wants to go out by opening the door.  If you have a garden and a dog that wants to go out in it this can be extended to other good behaviours too

Out on a walk a dog that walks ‘on a loose lead’ can be rewarded by being allowed to go for a sniff around trees and shrubs  With my own dogs, they are expected to walk without stopping past the houses, then ‘released’ to sniff the open ground at the top of the road.

Pros – can be highly motivating under certain circumstances (and no handler memory involved)

Cons – the environment can be very distracting and it is not fully under our control which makes it of limited practicality


Functional Rewards

‘Functional rewards’ are provided by permitting a dog to do something he wants to do as a reward for doing something you want him to do.  They can be used for anything where there is an obvious pairing such as rewarding waiting quietly for dinner by giving dinner or waiting quietly by the door to go into the garden by opening the door.     Functional rewards can be particularly helpful with certain types of reactive dogs and their use in this way  is fully explained in Gresha Stewart’s ‘Behavioural Adjustment Training for Fearful or Aggressive Dogs’


A combination may work best

While all of the reinforcers described can work well, each has its limitations.  Praise and petting while handy, as you don’t have to be prepared, may be less rewarding for some dogs.  Play or a toy, though motivating, tends to be slower.  Food, for most a top reward, isn’t in the least interesting for a small minority and there may be times when it is not practical as with a food aggressive dog or in the presence of food aggressive dogs.   Taking all these factors into account, wise trainers will assess their dogs and the environment in which they are working and use a combination of techniques to achieve the best results.


The bottom line? – a reward is what your dog says it is


Useful further reading

Don’t Shoot the Dog – Karen Pryor

Ahimsa Dog Training Manual – Grisha Stewart

Excel-Erated Learning – Pamela Reid



Progressive Reinforcement Training Manifesto – Emily Larlham

Dog Training Tips – Dr Sophia Yin

Errorless Learning versus the use of No Reward Markers

Resource guarding – Grisha Stewart


Why not chastise or punish?

Is Punishment an Effective Way to Change the Behavior of Dogs?

Dog Training Methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with Welfare and Behaviour – E F Hiby, N J Rooney, J W S Bradshaw – Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.

Welfare in Dog Training


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