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Using Life Rewards in Dog Training

Updated on July 1, 2014

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Life rewards in dog training
Life rewards in dog training | Source

Unlock a world of life rewards for your dog!

Thinking about using life rewards for your dog's training? Yes, it's true that food can be a great motivator for dogs, but there are countless other ways you can reinforce desired behaviors without a need to dig in your pockets for a treat. First off, let me clarify that I have nothing against using food for training. I use food extensively for training and behavior modification. There is nothing wrong with using food if you do so with knowledge. It's almost an art. The secret is being quick enough so your dog knows what you are rewarding for and not falling into the trap of bribing or you'll be stuck with a dog who will work only when food is in sight. While food is very helpful, especially in the initial stages of learning, there are other not-so-well-known rewards you can use once behaviors have established.

All you really need is some basic understanding of how dogs learn and a good grasp on what your dog truly likes. Once these basic concepts are well understood, a vast array of life rewards will unlock and you can use them to your advantage. Let's first take an insight into some basic learning theory, and then, let's take a look at what life rewards you can use for your dog.

An Insight into Dog Learning Theory

If you want your dog to perform certain behaviors, you will have to make sure he receives enough reinforcement so he'll want to repeat such behaviors over and over again and such behaviors become resistant to extinction. In positive reinforcement, we are adding a desired consequence so our dog will feel compelled to repeat certain behaviors again and again. So if you are giving your dog a cookie every time he sits and your dog loves cookies, your dog will learn to associate the act of sitting with the pleasant consequence--the cookie. This means that with time, he will be eager sit more and more because he is eager to get his reward (the cookie).

Rewards in Dog Training,To Each Their Own

Things though can get tricky at times. Your dog is not a robot who will always 100 percent respond in the same ways. Truth is, there may be times where there are distractions or more interesting things going on and he may not be able to respond. He may also be anxious, in fight or flight mode which shuts down his digestive system and the cookie is no longer appealing as a reward. Chances are,if he was trained for some time, he may still sit but he may refuse the cookie. On the other hand, there may be dogs who may care less about cookies. Some dogs may not find cookies that appealing to work for or they may be have tooth pain or simply they may be tired of eating cookies because you offer them every day. So in order to ensure that your dog stays motivated in training, you need to evaluate if rewards are being rewarding enough, if there are any competing sources of reinforcement around and if there are other rewards you can use to your advantage.

Pats on the head: loved or dreaded?

What can be rewarding for one dog, may not be rewarding for another. I remember a few years ago, I was watching a class in one of those pet stores that organize them in a small area. There was a small, very frightened dog who would not take treats like the other dogs. This dog was overwhelmed by the experience of being in such a small area with so many people and other dogs around. So the trainer told the owner to pet the dog on the head as a reward for each time the dog sat. Since the dog was reluctant to sit, the trainer instructed the owner to hold the dog by the collar while putting some pressure so the dog was forced to sit. The moment the dog sat, the owner was to praise and pat the dog on the head as a reward.

The trainer assumed that dog would like the pat on the head so much so to be willing to sit more and more. She probably had seen dogs who responded well to praise and head pats in the past and assumed it would work well for this dog as well. I watched the owner put pressure on the collar and the dog sat, and then the owner praised and pat the dog on the head. The dog tensed and lowered her head every time she pat her. I was not surprised. Not many dogs like pats on the head. Those who do have probably been trained to enjoy head pats though positive interactions and/or associations with food. This dog who was recently rescued simple seemed to dread them. Not only, the praise seemed to have become a signal that the dreaded head pat was about to come, so the dog tensed and cowered even before the owner pat her! It came as no surprise therefore that between the pressure and pats, the dog wasn't getting anywhere in the training. For a good part this was due to the dog feeling highly unsafe, and being unable to cognitively function-- and the pats certainly didn't do anything to make the dog feel safer and want to sit at all. So this is a case where we can demonstrate how praise and pats doesn't work for all dogs.

The Reward/Punishment Conundrum

Another example that comes to mind was a Lab who had a barking issue. The owner was told by a trainer to use a water gun to spray the dog every time he barked. The owner reported it didn't help at all, actually the barking seemed to have increased! When I got to the owner's home, I asked to see the water gun. As soon as she got it out from the drawer, even before she got to squirt it, the Lab was wagging his tail wildly and started barking in a high-pitched tone wit his front legs slightly bent. I understood from the dog's body language, and the tone of the bark, that the dog must have thought his owner was playing. When we discussed this, she recalled how in the past summer he would also bark when the sprinkler system was on, and more precisely, he would bark at it as he tried to catch the spurts of water. So in this case, he was getting reinforcement rather than punishment since every time he barked, he was squirted, something this dog enjoyed! The barking behavior therefore increased (a result of positive reinforcement) rather than decreasing (the goal of punishment).

The Importance of Recognizing Rewards

So every time we want to see behaviors increase, we must be aware of things our dogs find reinforcing. It's wrong to think that one reward works for all dogs! Rewards are not perceived the same way for each dog! In humans, some people would rather work over time to accumulate money to spend on a trip while others would rather invest it. Same applies with dogs, they have different preferences. And when behaviors fail to increase, we must wonder what exactly is happening and if what we think should be a reward is not. Once we understand what our dogs find rewarding, we can then apply those rewards to reinforce wanted behaviors. It's a shame that we have so many opportunities for rewarding dogs using life rewards, and don't utilize them fully. In the next paragraphs, let's see what life rewards are and how we can benefit from them.

Examples of life rewards in dog training

Think about things that make your perk up as his eyes brighten and tail wags in anticipation. Sure, you dog behaves this way every time you get the food bowl, but think more. There are many circumstances in life where dogs act enthusiastically. Dogs are masters in enjoying special moments in life. Take note of these moments and find what causes your dog to perk up in such a way. Is it the anticipation of going on a walk? Is your dog delighted to go in the yard? Is your dog thrilled by going on car rides? Does your dog love belly rubs and is always asking for more? Or does his face lighten up when you are ready to toss a ball? Keep track of all these life events that cause a surge of enthusiasm in your dog. Afterward, put them to your advantage!

What are life rewards? Life rewards are things or situations your dog looks forward to. This is a list of common life rewards many dogs like, but keep in mind what we talked about in the previous paragraphs. To each their own. Dogs are not all the same so keep in mind individual differences.

  • Eating from his food bowl
  • Stuffed Kongs, bully sticks, bones and other chew items.
  • New toys or toys your dog hasn't seen for a while
  • Tossing a ball or a Frisbee or anything else your dog love to catch
  • Going out in the yard
  • Getting his leash put on
  • Going in the car
  • Getting out the car (if you go to a park or some place nice)
  • Getting rubbed where the dog likes it the most
  • Having the water bowl filled on a hot day
  • Getting attention from guests
  • Playing with water
  • Playing with another dog
  • Chasing wildlife
  • Hopping on furniture-- if you allow it

Once you have determined what your dog likes to do, you can use it to your advantage, by asking your dog to perform a behavior and immediately implementing what he likes. So if your dog loves going on walks, ask him for a sit before you put the leash on and then head out the door. If your dog loves the yard, ask him to sit before you open the door and send him out. If your dog loves to fetch, implement a sit/stay and right when he sits, toss the ball. If your dog loves car rides, ask for a sit before you allow him to get on the truck and once you arrive at your destination, if it's a place your dog is eager to go, ask him to make eye contact with you before being allowed to descend. Does your dog jump all over you when you grab his food bowl? Ask for a sit and reward him with the food bowl being put on the floor. You bought your dog a new toy? Hide it behind your back and call your dog. When he comes to you, toss the new toy to reward him for coming.

Soon, you'll discover how many opportunities you have to reinforce desired behaviors. The best part? Since your dog is often very enthusiastic about attaining these life rewards, by making him perform a behavior before being given access to such rewards, you'll be instilling more impulse control. A win-win situation for all!

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.

Examples of life rewards I use when training dogs at Rover's Ranch


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      4 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great tips, Adrienne, on how to reward your dog for good behavior. Very useful. Thanks for sharing. Voted up!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      4 years ago

      At that age, my main focus would be to teach your son how to be around dogs respectfully. Teach that the dog is not a toy (many toddlers think this way, and it's quite normal at this age) and needs to be pet gently. Hold your toddlers hand in your hand and let your dog sniff it and give him a treat. Hold your child's hand in your hand and show him how to gently pet your dog, reward your child "good!" when he pets gently and give your dog a treat. If your toddler gets rough, tell him to be "gentle" and postpone at another time. Also, make sure your boxer gets used to being handled in different ways. Do this yourself. Hold on to her tail and give him a treat, hold her ears and give a treat, push her gently and give her a treat. It happens quite frequently that a toddler is wobbly and will push the dog. Let the dog and toddler relax at times during the day by separating with a baby gate so they each have their quiet time or teach your dog to retreat somewhere when she needs to. Teach your toddler not to go near the food bowl when your dog is eating or not to bother when the dog is sleeping. You can have your toddler help you prepare meals, you toddler can tell your dog to sit and then you can put the food bowl down, and then make sure your toddler understands that once the food bowl is down, doggy needs to eat in peace. Supervision all the time.

    • blogsterx profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      Any tips on how to get my 2 year old son to learn or get use to the idea that our dog understands commands? basically any ideas on how to get them to interact more than they do now. thanks! Oh I have a 6 year old female boxer.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      4 years ago

      My dogs enjoy being touched and that includes pats on the head. A good way to tell if a dog enjoys being touched is stopping and seeing if the dog elicits more touch. When I stop petting my dogs, my female will paw at me and my male will put his big head on my lap in hopes of more pats.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Dogs are such lovely pets to have and your hubs are always interesting about dogs. A pat on the head sounds a good idea.

    • GiblinGirl profile image


      4 years ago from New Jersey

      Very interesting about patting dogs on the head - my dog actually tends to lower down when I do that. I'll have to try implementing some other life rewards because food doesn't always do the trick.


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