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What’s your favorite thing? What’s your spouse’s favorite thing? How about your best friend? Co-worker? Are they all the same? Probably not! Your dog has a different favorite thing too! What one dog finds reinforcing is not the same as what another dog finds reinforcing. What do most dogs have in common? Most dogs find food reinforcing! Using treats during training is the best way to guarantee that your dog will repeat the behavior you want. After all, you keep going to work because you keep getting a paycheck, right? Your dog is more likely to sit if he often gets rewarded for sitting!

Training with positive reinforcement has the added benefit of creating a dog that wants to be trained. However, not all dog treats are created equal. Some dogs will work for pieces of dry cereal or a hard biscuit, but for many dogs this is like expecting a toddler to find broccoli rewarding! Positive reinforcement is defined by the receiver; this means your dog gets to choose what is most rewarding to him, not you! The more distracting the environment in which you are training, then the more motivating the treat needs to be in order to keep your dog’s attention.

Here is a breakdown of what most dogs would define as their hierarchy of rewards.

  • At home with few distractions (low value): kibble, carrots, ice cubes, green beans, or hard biscuits.
  • In your yard (medium value): commercial training treats, cheese, or jerky type treats.
  • At the park (high value): chicken, hot dog, hamburger, deli meat, or liver.
  • Remember, these are not static and not every dog follows this breakdown. Offer different types of food rewards to find out what your dog likes best, and build your dogs’ reward hierarchy from there.
  • When in an unfamiliar environment, among distractions, or when learning something new, your dog’s job is harder. Just like you would expect to get paid more for doing a more difficult job, your dog should be paid more too!
  • When teaching something new or practicing in a new environment increase the value of your treats. As with any treat used for training, make sure you use small pieces! Treats should be pea-sized or smaller so your dog doesn’t get too full.
  • The more often your reward your dog when he does what you ask, the more likely he’ll do what you ask in the future!
  • Keep an eye out for our next article in the series about training with non-food rewards and how to wean off luring with food treats.

To get even more tips about training your dog, make your dog part of the AKC Canine Partners communityThe AKC GoodDog! Helpline provides seven-day-a-week telephone support from experienced dog trainers like Breanne Long, who contributed to this article.
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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