If things aren’t working in your training, there are two aspects of rewarding with treats that you need to consider. First is the quality of the treats. Jean Donaldson sometimes uses the term “paying” instead of rewarding. You’re paying the dog to do something he doesn’t have any desire to do. The less desirable the behavior is for the dog, the more you need to be willing to pay. Also, the more distractions are present, the more you need to pay. If a colleague asked you to sub for him at your job, and you have nothing else to do, you might want to get paid your standard rate. But, if you had tickets to see a great concert or sporting event, your colleague would need to offer you some greater reward to make it worth your while. Likewise, “come” might be doable with some kibble if you’re in the living room. Out in the park, with squirrels nearby, you might need some roast chicken…at the bottom of this page, I’ve listed some food rewards in order of appeal.
Second, there’s the issue of “rate of reinforcement”, and, here, every dog is different. Should you give your dog a treat for every correct response? Or just part of the time? Over time, you’ll really need to pay attention and feel it out, but here are some thoughts:
When you’re first training a behavior, it makes a lot of sense to reward the dog 100% of the time. (Remember, we’re not talking about showing the dog a treat, except for the first few reps. We’re talking about training the dog to trust that, if she does the behavior with no visible reward, then a treat will magically appear.) See the Ian Dunbar video in the “your dog does not understand English” post for instruction on how to use “lure-reward” training.
Once your dog understands the command, Dunbar’s simple solution to the “how often to reward” question is a system he calls “differential reinforcement”. He suggests rewarding only the above-average half of the responses. For the below average responses, you just say, “Good dog!” This theoretically leads the dog to improve her performance to make sure she’s getting the treats. When you’re satisfied with the quality of the behavior, you can switch to a non-food reward a/or only reward occasionally. Also, you can request a number of behaviors for one treat: “Sit-Down-Sit-Paw-Spin-Sit”, then give a treat!
Now…about those treats: The best treats should be small, easy to carry (I use a little pouch on my belt, or just keep them in the pockets of my sweatshirt or jacket), as nutritious as possible, and tasty.
I’ll rank some here, in the order dogs might prefer them, least to most:
- Kibble; regular dry food may work well if your dog is an avid food hound and you’re working in a “no distractions zone”. Many trainers suggest using kibble at home, and something tastier when you’re out and about. One advantage of kibble is that it provides complete nutrition as per the Association of American Feed Control Officials. (AAFCO)
- “Mini” hard biscuits (pictured). We use MilkBone Minis. Not huge dog favorites, but edible.
- Softer, smellier training treats. We use “Zukes” (pictured), and they are our default treat for Suki. They’re little, tasty (I assume), and slightly chewy without being too soft.
- “Natural Balance” rolls (pictured); this is another “complete nutrition” treat: Smellier and tastier than any of the above treats, but they’re more time intensive, because you need to slice and dice them off of the salami-like roll.
- Cheese! Yes, Wallace and Gromit’s favorite is adored by many dogs. String cheese works well, and is easy to handle.
- Roast chicken, smoked fish, chopped up hot dogs, and other real food; often a pain to deal with, but can be a great incentive to your dog.
Of course, dogs, like people, have their own personal preferences, but this list order is a good place to start. Your manipulation of how often to reward, and what quality of food you use, will help you fine-tune the process of training your dog!
Okay, that’s all for now!