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Dog Training: Treats, Rewards & Reinforcement. What’s The Difference?

Lots of people now train their dog or puppy using positive reinforcement – hurrah! – and food tends to be our go-to item. However, there is much confusion about the difference between the terms ‘treat’, ‘reward’ and ‘reinforcement’. So, what is the difference? Does it matter? And can it affect the results you achieve with your dog?

Dog licking lips after a treat

What’s the difference?

Treat – is defined as “an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure”. So, if I feed my dog dry kibble for all his meals, will he consider being given yet another piece of kibble as a ‘treat’? Depends on your dog to a certain extent! But think carefully the type of food you use to ‘treat’ your dog in training; and remember a ‘treat’ doesn’t have to be food (more on this later).

Reward – “something given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement” so, for a piece of food to act as a ‘reward’, your dog first needs to have performed an activity/behaviour, and then you give him something to recognise this. Again, ‘rewards’ can be food but could also be other things, see below.

Reinforcement the process of strengthening behaviour”. This is the crucial bit! It’s the science of applying an appropriate reinforcer (see below for info on types of Reinforcers) – in order to make a behaviour stronger. So, if feeding my dog succulent pieces of chicken – or playing a game of tug – when he recalls to me, means his recall gets better, then the chicken (or tug game) is ‘reinforcing’ his recall.

“Reinforcement: The process of strengthening behaviour”

A word of caution: emotions dont have to be happy to be reinforcing! For example – if a dog barks at something it finds scary and that makes the scary thing go away/stop, then the relief it brings can be very reinforcing ... which means the dog is likely to bark at things in future. Barking has been negatively reinforced. See Emma Judson’s excellent graphic on the topic below. So, Reinforcement can be Negative or Positive. For the purpose of this blog though, we’ll stick with the positive!

Dog's Quadrant of Learning Theory
Dog's Quadrant of Learning Theory © Emma Judson

Do Words Matter?

At first glance it appears that the 3 terms – rewards, treats, reinforcers – are very similar ... don’t be fooled! Using treats or rewards in dog training is just wonderful but let’s use them wisely. The goal is that the thing you use strengthens the desired behaviour. If it doesn’t, eg if I bring dry kibble to the dog park and call Fido but he ignores me every time, then kibble is neither a treat, nor a reward and it isn’t reinforcing the required behaviour. So dont bother using it!

Food – Get creative with this – try different types of food. Dry versus moist foods; fish versus chicken or hot dogs or cheese! What about lickable foods eg squeezy cheese (Primula) or perhaps yoghurt? The list goes on – test which foods your dog finds simply deeelicious!

Toys – Trial different toys: Fluffy ones, furry ones, squeaky ones, heavy ones, long handles, short handles, ropes, soft fabrics (fleece), rough fabrics, rubber rings – the options are almost endless! You could even try getting a Flirt Pole?!

For some dogs, the flirt pole trumps squirrels!

For more ideas check out Tug-e-nuff – they make fantastic dog toys and you’ll get 10% off their super toys by entering the discount code JOYFULDOGS at checkout!

Games – Dogs love games! And are usually willing partners so channel your inner creative genius and invent your own for example:

  • Chasing Games

  • Sniffing Games

  • Water Games ?! Here’s Lilly the Cavapoo who simply ADORES water splashes! So we trained her recall using splashes as the Reinforcer – watch her in action here.

So there you have it – there are oodles of things you can use to reinforce desirable behaviour; really its about finding out – testing – what your dog loves ... and in what contexts. Getting to know your dog’s motivations is great fun and will make your training partnership much more effective.

Delivery Matters Too!

Quantity – when it comes to food, research indicates that dogs don’t necessarily discriminate portion size but they can count! So, if Fido does a really snappy recall, maybe you could give him or her 5small pieces of food, one after the other – as opposed to just 1 piece?

Style of delivery Try not to shove food in your dog's face! Instead consider scattering it on the floor or squishing it in a tree and then help your dog ‘hunt’ for it? Or perhaps you hide behind a tree and when Fido finds you, produce a fab toy and chase about together.

Training can be such a Joyful thing! Be inventive and have fun testing out different options so you know what works best for your dog, in which contexts.

Book Training For Your Dog?

If you’d like help training your dog or puppy click here.

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