Reward or Punishment?

A tiny, perfect ice cream cone, about an inch tall
Photos by Allison Lester

Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.

Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.

For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.

The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.

In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.

Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.

Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.

For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.

The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.

It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.

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