What’s the Best Motivator for Dogs?

By Linda Cole

Before you can begin to train your dog, you need the right kind of motivation. Some dogs love food more than anything else, some enjoy being stroked/petted, and some will learn a command to play a game of fetch or tug of war. All dogs love to receive praise for doing a good job. But is one reward better than the others when it comes to the best way to motivate your dog?

Over the last several years, I’ve had opportunities to talk with many people who work extensively with dogs. Among them: an officer from the Denver Police Department who works with canines trained to detect explosives; a dock diving dog owner who uses the sport to raise awareness for K9 cancer; and another dog owner who trains his dogs for Schutzhund competitions. Each person emphasized the importance of knowing your dog as an individual to find out what motivates him to learn. Most dogs need more motivation than just praise, and some dogs look forward to playing as a reward after training sessions.

There is a debate among dog trainers concerning the use of treats versus praising as a reward. Some believe giving treats is a form of bribery, and once you start rewarding with food it means if you don’t have a treat the dog will stop obeying commands. On the other end of the debate are trainers who say just petting and praising a dog isn’t as effective of a reward for the majority of dogs.

A group of researchers from the Nihon University in Japan wanted to find out which reward was more effective. They used 15 dogs and began by teaching them two common commands: sit/stay and come. A trainer worked with the dogs in 10 different sessions. Beginning with sit/stay, each dog was taught to sit and wait as his handler walked away a short distance and then returned. If he stayed, he was rewarded. Before the dog could move on to the next step, he had to correctly hold his position in the sit/stay until the trainer returned to him 10 times in a row.

Once the dogs mastered how to sit/stay, it was time to learn recall (come). The trainer began teaching recall in stages by walking three feet away from the dog, and later increased the distance to around 12 feet. For reasons unknown to the researchers, the farther the distance between dog and human, the less reliable the dog was at coming. Through each stage of teaching recall, the trainer kept working the dog until he was responding at least 75 percent of the time. During the training, there were three groups of dogs used. Each group was given a different kind of reward – food, petting/stroking, or happy verbal praise.

It turned out that the food reward was the most effective motivator for dogs during the sit/stay training sessions, and it took them less time for the dog to learn the command. For the most part, the group that received a treat reward accomplished the sit/wait task in only 5 training sessions. The group that was rewarded with petting/stroking took 13 training sessions, and the group that was given verbal praise took 12 training sessions to accomplish the task.

The recall command had some interesting results as well. Speed was a factor in the group that was given a food reward when they returned to the trainer. The dogs responded more eagerly and faster than the other two groups. In fact, the food reward group took half as much time, regardless of what the distance was, than the other two. There was only a slight response difference between the petting/stroking and verbal praise groups, but both took longer to respond to the command than the food reward group.

The takeaway from this study seems to favor treats as the best way to motivate your dog, but it’s only one study with a small number of dogs tested. I don’t look at a food reward as a bribe. It’s the right kind of motivation for my dogs to want to learn. Once they learn a command and repeat it consistently, I don’t need a treat to get them to do what I ask. Praise is enough motivation once they understand what I’m asking them to do. However, I still hand out CANIDAE Pure Heaven biscuits once in awhile as a special reward for good behavior.

Photos by Taro the Shiba Inu

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