Positive reward-based training relies on using a reward to help reinforce a behaviour.  A reinforcer can be anything that your dog finds rewarding.  All dogs are different so what they find rewarding is different; and each dog is different depending on what time of day it is and what is going on at the time. You’ve probably all had moments where your single piece of dried kibble simply wasn’t interesting enough because of what was going on in the environment in that moment!

What are the different reinforcers that we can use:

  1. Your time and attention – don’t under-estimate how important these are!  If you always give your dog your attention for barking you’ll get more barking even if you are shouting ‘no!’
  2. High value food treats like hotdog, cheese & sprats.  Food treats are a really clear tangible reward which most dogs care a great deal about.
  3. Low value food treats like your dogs normal dried dog food.  These can be made into a high value reward by giving one after the other after the other in a little stream of treats.
  4. Toy and play rewards like tuggy or fetch can be a great way to share your attention with your dog
  5. Access to their environment or other dogs e.g. by going onto a long lead rather than a short lead, or going off lead
  6. Being close to their main human, which is why if your dog doesn’t come back when called it can sometimes work for you to runaway from them!

Often when we start training we use simply LOADS of treats to help reinforce the behaviours that we want.  Food treats are by far the easiest reinforcer to manage and is the clearest for the dog to recognise.   We may still be left with behaviours we don’t want and will either need to ‘manage out’ or ignore the behaviours that we don’t want.  If, for instance your dog doesn’t always come back when you call them you need to give them a treat whenever they come back and keep them on a long lead to help manage out their incorrect choices.

If you get it right though, toy & play reinforcers can be EVEN better.  Toys are much bigger than treats and all the chasing, tugging, mouthing and biting on a toy can be a whole lot more rewarding than a few treats.  “But my dog doesn’t really like toys” I hear you say?

It’s not as hard as might think to get your dog totally ‘hooked’ on a toy.  Although some breeds may have a natural affinity to tugging (bull breeds) or fetching (gun dogs) you can train your dog to love a ‘training toy’ which you can use thereafter as a toy reward.    Just to be clear, this is going to be your toy which you share with your dog when you see fit, its not a toy you just give to your dog.

I started training Lawrence with a yellow banana shaped pencil case when he was a puppy and he still loves training with it today. I give him high value treats from the toy and only low value treats from my treat bag.

Training a toy:

  1. Encourage your dog to play with your toy by trailing it on the floor and by playing with it yourself – you are literally adding your positive vibes to the toy
  2. Play with your chosen toy with your dog every day for just a few minutes with lots of energy and enthusiasm.   End the game on a high when the dog wants more and then put the toy away out of reach and out of sight.
  3. If you are using a prey dummy then let them eat some of their dried food out of it each day
  4. If it’s a tuggy toy make sure that your dog know that there are clear rules about who’s in charge of which end of the toy – if they attempt to change ends then stop the game until the next day
  5. After a week or two you can add in some other games like simple fetches of the toy but always start these on the lead, your dog needs to know that running away with THIS toy is not an option.  If this works then try sometimes hiding the toy slightly out of sign for them to search out.

Then finally you are at the stage where you can start taking the toy out the house on a walk and to training classes! Every so often use the toy to reward a particularly great behaviour e.g. if your dog does a spectacular recall don’t just give them a treat instead give them a fun game with their toy!

Brandon finds holding a toy comforting and often holds a soft toy in his mouth