Spreading the Word on Reward-Based Training

Sometimes, we all need a little encouragement. And that includes our pets when we're training them.

The best treats to use in training dogs and cats, like this Chihuahua and this ginger kitten

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The Train for Rewards blog party is all about encouraging people to use rewards when training their companion animals (here's why it's such a good idea).

And although it’s mostly about dogs – because they are the species we devote most time to training – any companion animal can be trained with rewards.

The best reward to use is food. Good food, in fact. (For ideas, see the best dog training treats).

As a society, we have this mythology around dogs that they should just do what we say out of respect and love. The myth that if we have the right personality, dogs will do what we want without them even needing to practice. It doesn’t do us or them any favours.

Dogs and cats are wonderful but they both need motivation in training. That’s why using food is so great: it works.

And it should be good food, like chicken.

Sometimes this surprises people; I am regularly asked why kibble isn’t best. But of course, your dog can get kibble anyway. You’re asking them to do something – and good food that isn’t normally available is a lot more motivating. Added bonus: you’re also providing food enrichment by adding variety to their diet.

The mythology around dogs is so great that sometimes when I suggest people use food, they think I mean for them but I must have some magic that means I don’t use food myself. Don’t worry, they soon start to call me “the chicken lady.”

The real break-through is when they too become the chicken lady. Or the peanut butter cookie lady. Or the tuna fudge guy.

The best treats to use for training dogs, like these two cuties with their noses sticking out from a blanket
Photo: dezi; top, Otsphoto. Both Shutterstock.

Not too long ago, I spoke to two amazing animal trainers and asked them about the rewards they use to train dogs and cats.

Here’s what world-renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash, told me about how she motivates her dog Brian:

“He’s very about primal nibs. He’s about this stuff called Rawbble which is little kind of freeze-dried raw things. He’ll work very nicely for chicken breast and I cut it into tiny little dice. He’ll work for cheese. He’ll occasionally work for a toy but not much, he’s not incredibly toy-driven and so I generally train him with food.”

And Dr. Sarah Ellis, co-author (with Dr. John Bradshaw) of The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, says food is the best reward for cats too.

“…we have to think about what really is rewarding for a cat, because it’s certainly not our social attention, for most cats. And when we first start training a cat that’s not been trained before, the most rewarding thing generally for cats is food.”

Cats can be trained with food treats, as these three Tuxedo kittens have still to find out
Photo: Africa Studio (Shutterstock)

And this is what she says about using the right-sized reward for a cat:

“…even the size that commercial cat treats come in are far too big to be a single training treat. So I very often recommend that if you are using commercial cat treats, use the freeze dried ones or the semi-moist ones, because you can pull them into much much smaller parts. If we’re thinking about a prawn, not a king prawn just an average normal prawn, I would break that maybe into four or five parts at least.”

So: chicken breast; freeze-dried raw things; pieces of prawn. That’s what it’s all about.

Of course there’s a hierarchy of treats. If chicken is your default reward, save your very best (like tripe stick) for behaviours that are a lot of work (such as coming when you call).

It’s easy to get started with reward-based training. But not everyone has someone they can ask about training methods, and there’s a lot of erroneous information out there.

A Bernese Mountain dog spreads the word on the best treats to use for training

I am lucky to know many talented dog trainers. But I know some people feel isolated in communities where there isn’t much expertise in training animals with methods other than “dominance” or shock. And I know some people feel locally isolated, but part of a wider community thanks to online networks and gatherings at events and seminars.

Things are changing.

More and more people are learning why and how to use rewards in training their dogs, cats, and other animals. And this is something to celebrate.

This post is part of the 2017 Train for Rewards blog party. You'll find the 2018 Train for Rewards blog party here. Check it out and feel cheered by all the brilliant people who are spreading the word about reward-based training. See you there!

P.S. If you want to know more about the science of dog training, a new literature review recommends reward-based dog training and I also keep a list of scientific articles on dog training (and places to read about them for free). If you want more of the practicalities, check out my user-friendly guide to positive reinforcement.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.

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  1. I would think that for a nervous, timid dog, this is the only way to go.

  2. When it comes to cats, we have this mythology that they can't live indoors, be trained, or change. Thanks to this myth cats are often left alone for hours without company and to fend for themselves. And if they misbehave, owners will dismiss the actions as "Cats will be cats" or worse take them to the shelter out of frustration.

    But just like dogs, the mythology doesn't do them or us any good. Like you said, any companion animal (and even to a certain extent zoo animals) can be trained with rewards. Not only will reward-based training enrich our relationships, but it might even save some lives.


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