How to Motivate Your Dog With Rewards

The Dog Trainer explains the secret behind successfully training any breed of dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
2-minute read

How to Motivate Your Dog With Rewards

“You can’t train a [Beagle; an Akita; a Malamute …].”

Pssst: I’ll tell you a secret. You can train any dog who isn’t actually dead. The key is to figure out what your individual dog finds interesting and rewarding, and to use that to motivate her. Her breed or breed mix may be a clue. For instance, many supposedly hard-to-train breeds respond poorly to old-school “correction”-based training.

Dogs of breeds developed to work independently often don’t find human affection as rewarding as your average Pit Bull or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel might. We often use food with these dogs, but play that mimics the work they were bred for can also really light their fire. For instance, terrier types were bred to hunt small prey. Teaching your terrier to come when called? Try whipping out a long fuzzy squeaky toy when she arrives, and reward her with a round of grab-and-yank.

And here’s a tip for increasing the value of rewards for a dog of any breed: Human behavioral economists have found that people value things more when they have to expend effort or money to get them.

I’m not aware of similar research on dogs, but I and many other trainers have the strong sense that the more a dog earns his food instead of getting it “for free” in a bowl, the more eager he is to work for food. It’s as if dogs value food more when they regularly earn it, whether or not they’re super-hungry at the time. Don’t let the food bowl hang around all day long so your dog can graze – it’s a trainer no-no, unless there’s some medical reason for it.

Boxer dog balancing balancing ball from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).