Rewards, Welfare and the Animal's Perspective in Training

Taking the animal’s perspective, and other highlights from the Train for Rewards blog party.

A cute dog and cat look expectant for their reward

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Recently, 28 other blogs joined me in the Train for Rewards blog party to celebrate what we can do with reward-based training of our companion animals, and to encourage people to give it a try.

There were some truly brilliant posts. Thank you to everyone who took part and helped to make it such a success for the second year in a row.

It’s no surprise that most posts were about dog training, but cat training and the training of a pet pig also featured this year. And there were some common themes.

Animal welfare

The benefits to animal welfare when we use reward-based training methods instead of aversive techniques was a common theme.

Changes in how we think about animal welfare – to include positive experiences instead of just trying to reduce the bad – have implications for how we train animals, Kat Littlewood writes.

She says, “positive reinforcement is a ‘modern’ approach to learning and training, as it provides specific information to the animal about the exact behaviour that is required. In doing so, it enhances the human-animal bond.”

And as animals earn rewards, they experience positive emotional states, she says, and this is good for their welfare.

The benefits of reward-based training for both cats and their humans are also considered by Julie Hecht. She writes about training cats to like their cat carriers, something that really helps when taking them to the vet and would also come in handy in case of emergency. “It’s a shame these videos probably won’t go viral,” she says of the videos that illustrate her post, and it is. If you have a cat who is afraid of their carrier, be sure to check out that post.

A happy white Poodle raises a paw for a reward
Photo: Jagodka; top, Africa Studio (both Shutterstock)

If instead you have a dog you would like to train to go into a carrier, Malena DeMartini breaks down the steps she used to train her dog Tini to go into her travel crate. Getting Tini used to the travel crate will mean she can go places when a new train arrives in the neighbourhood, which is better for her welfare than being left at home for long periods.

Types of reward

Several posts, including my own, looked at the kind of reward that is useful in training dogs and cats.

Dr. Kate Mornement sums up why we should think about what to use as rewards. “Food is innately reinforcing and it works exceptionally well in training to teach dogs (and all animals) desired behaviours. But not all food is equal. Just because you think the treats you're using are rewarding to your dog (or other animal), doesn't mean they are the most rewarding or effective treats to use.”

The idea of testing different rewards and observing your dog or puppy’s response is also considered by Sydney Bleicher and by Jessica Ring, who uses the idea of the “Yum-o-meter.” (Cheese shreds get a good rating from all three dogs in this post). And Heather Fox took a close look at what she needed to do to make nosework training rewarding for her dog.

In Tell Me What You Want (What You Really Really Want) Casey McGee compares what humans might need to persuade them to do something (like run 3 miles in flip flops) to what a dog might need as a reward for the kinds of things we ask of them. She encourages us to think about how expensive different behaviours are from the dog’s perspective. Which brings us to…

Thinking about it from the animal’s perspective

The stubborn dog myth is considered by Helen Verte. You know those times when a dog does something wrong, like pee in the house, and the owner thinks it is because they are stubborn or spiteful? Not so. The reason is “Not to get back at the owner, or to carry out any other evil plan. They’re dogs. Their brains are made to react to a stimulus.”

Similarly, the Academy for Dog Trainers shared a cartoon that looks at house-training issues from the dog’s perspective. It’s a touch of humour that helps explain why some problems occur.

Sylvie Martin takes it on step further by asking “Seriously, who wants to be a pet?

But the best example of thinking about training from the dog’s perspective is in Melanie Cerone’s reflections on her own experiences as a crossover trainer, and how the benefits of reward-based training can be seen in her dog’s tail and face. (That video will surely make you happy).

And this beautifully-observed post by Megan O-Connor illustrates how low-level anxiety can affect a dog’s training session.

I’ve only touched on the main themes here. If you want to know more about how to use treats in training your dog, Tracy Krulik has you covered. Other posts looked at how to use habituation, the history of dog training, personal reflections on how using rewards changes the trainer, and more.

I highly recommend making a cup of tea or coffee and sitting down to read all the posts.

What did you learn from this year’s Train for Rewards blog party?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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