Thursday, April 2, 2009

Using Life Rewards To Reduce Reliance on Food Rewards

You reach that stage in training your dog when you have been using food treats to teach a dog a new behavior and it is time to fade out the reliance on food treats. Your dog knows the behavior, knows the word that goes along with the behavior (i.e. the cue or command) and performs the behavior reliably. So, how do you fade out reliance on treats? One way is to become a human slot machine and make it unpredictable as to when the dog gets a food reward and when the dog receives praise and petting. We all know how motivating slot machines can be. I always make sure that the times my dog does not receive a food reward for performing the behavior correctly, that I reinforce the behavior with effusive petting and praise. During this process, I stop using bait bags or fanny packs because dogs at this point already associate the bait bag with training sessions and essentially view the bait bag as a doggie vending machine. Instead, I will hide treats in my pockets or put them in various locations in the house where the dog can’t reach. In other words, I make it unpredictable as to when and where a food treat will come from.

There is another method of weaning dogs off food rewards that many people don’t take advantage of and it is a very powerful method of training dogs without treats. It is using life rewards as the motivator. Life rewards are activities that the dog naturally likes to do. A life reward can be going out for a walk, going outside in the back yard to look for squirrels, meeting another dog, or playing a game like fetch.

For example, before you take your dog out for a walk (life reward), ask your dog to sit or lie down before putting on the leash. My dogs have learned that sitting quickly will get them out the door that much faster. When you want to play fetch or tug, ask the dog to perform a trick like “go to your bed” or “sit.” Some dogs are very toy motivated and this is a great way to reinforce behaviors. All of these activities can be motivating for a dog and your dog will perform the requested behavior to get the life reward. Every dog has a different motivator or life reward and your job is to figure out what that is.

Sometimes, even your laughter and effusive praise alone are motivating for a dog especially when it is coupled with a natural behavior or tendency. There is one trick that I have taught my dogs without the use of food and that is to shake hands. I own akitas and a shiba which are part of the so-called Northern breed group (Akitas, Shibas, Huskies, Malamutes etc). One of the characteristics of this group is that they use their paws a lot. So, capitalizing on the breed’s natural tendencies, I attached a verbal cue (the word “shake”) to the pawing behavior and rewarded my dogs with verbal praise by being very enthusiastic whenever they offered their paw to me.

Recently, I taught my Akita puppy to run through my legs and sit underneath me whenever I said the phrase, “Where’s Kiku.” I used a treat as a lure to guide her through my legs and then asked her to sit to teach her entire chain of behaviors. Pretty soon, I noticed that she was performing the behavior with unusual speed and reliability, even from long distances. In fact, she performed this trick with even more speed and reliability than for just sitting directly in front of me or in the heel position. When you think about it, it is pretty unnatural for a dog to go through your legs and sit directly underneath you. I realized that because this trick was so cute, she would get a huge reaction when she performed it correctly. After all, sitting is so boring but when your dog runs between your legs from 10 feet away and sits, now that is exciting. Every time she did it correctly, I would start cracking up and hugging her. When she performed this trick in group classes or in front of an audience, people would start clapping and laughing. Kiku’s response demonstrates the importance of verbal praise and petting. For many dogs, this is a life reward. Kiku, in particular, is very responsive to human laughter and gets very excited when people laugh or giggle.

Here is a picture of Kiku performing the trick and you can see from the look on her face that she is reacting to the laughter from the photographer who thought this was the cutest thing ever.

The moral of this story is to use life rewards to reinforce the tricks you have taught your pet whenever possible and as another method of diminishing the use of food treats. Don’t underestimate the value of the human laughter, verbal praise and petting as a life reward for your pet. For many dogs this can be motivating. Sometimes we get so engrossed in the mechanics of training and how our dog is performing that we are too stingy with our verbal praise and petting.

Here is my question to you: what life rewards does your dog find motivating and how do you use these motivators to train your dog?

Happy training and remember to give your dog pawsitive feedback!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:


  1. Me laughing at Matilda encourages her to play with her toys on her own. Whenever she starts swatting around Mr. Starfish, I laugh and she definitely loves that. And now she'll happily play by herself even when I'm not focused on her as she really has a good time swatting that guy around on her own. It's really cute! And she seems to be quite happy. Which in turn makes me happy. :)

  2. Yay Jennifer and Matilda! Matilda is a very content and happy pooch. Plus she has a great dog momma!