What’s Your Dog’s Training Currency?

training your dog with treats and toys

They say that if you’re good at something, you should never do it for free…and believe it or not, that’s a lesson your pup learned early. When teaching a dog new behaviors, it’s important to know how Fido prefers to be rewarded. Some dogs are desperate for just one toss of a tennis ball — while other dogs think running sounds like too much work!

Whether your dog is food-motivated, play-motivated or willing to do anything for a belly rub, understanding your dog’s currency is crucial to successful training.

Payment, Not Bribery

Some dog parents believe that our pups shouldn’t have to be “bribed” to obey. Won’t our dogs serve us willingly, out of pure love and devotion? After all, we feed them and care for them and pick up their poop, and all we ask for in return is obedience — isn’t that enough?

But, realistically, it would be a little self-centered to think that we humans should always be the most important thing in our dog’s life at any moment of any day. After all, the world is a very exciting place!

That means if you want your dog to pay attention to you when there’s great smells, darting squirrels, other dogs, toys to chew, and all kinds of distractions around, you’re going to have to find a way to make listening to you more fun than anything else.

As professional dog trainer Fran Saidel says:

“People talk about “fading” out the reward or not using food for training their dogs. How do they motivate their dogs to work for them? And are they, or their dogs, having any fun with training? In human terms: You have a job you love. You love everything about it – the work, the place, the people. Would you still do that job if you didn’t get paid? Would a hearty “Atta Girl!” really be enough compensation?”

In other words, your dog won’t focus on you unless you prove it’s worth their time — and the only way to do that is paying your dog in a currency they value!

Our canine companions may not keep a steady 9-5, but they definitely understand the concept of “will work for food” (or, for many dogs, “will work for play”). Yes, your best pal loves you. Yes, he wants to please you. Still, you really can’t blame your pooch for having a bit of a “What’s in it for me?” attitude.

According to dog trainer Tracey Costa, we ought to be thinking of canine currency as well-earned payment instead of a bribe:

“Good training requires the dog receive a payment (reward) for performing a behavior properly. Just like cash, not all currency has the same value. Currency is anything a dog values or a combination of things he values.  It is not what a human THINKS the dog should value. In other words, a pat on the head is typically not a high enough currency for a job well done.”

Don’t be a stingy boss to poor Fido. If your dog does good work, pay up!

Paying a Food-Motivated Dog

For most dogs, a tantalizing treat is worth working for. After all, food is love — and it’s been the foundation of our relationship with our canine companions for thousands of years.

Wild wolves were first tempted into tameness with the irresistible promise of a steady supply of food. As long as we humans keep to that agreement, the friendly descendents of those wolves are more than happy to continue to cooperate with us and be our partners in life!

Yet as universal as food-motivated training is, there are two chief concerns dog parents usually raise about training with treats: What if your dog becomes “dependent” on treats, and won’t obey you if you don’t have any on hand? Won’t turning yourself into a human Pez dispenser make your dog overweight?

Those are both perfectly valid concerns! However, there are definitely ways to address them.

For one thing, dogs are gamblers. The addiction of continually putting coins in a machine just to see if this time you win is a tendency that humans and canines share — and it can be used to our advantage.

The key is to use treats liberally while you are first establishing good habits. Then, randomize when the reward appears. Eventually, your dog will be happy to obey your commands because there’s always the chance of hitting the “jackpot.”

Obviously, this is a bit of a balancing act. Your dog isn’t exactly doing math in his head, but he is able to sense his odds of “winning” based on experience. If “winning” begins to feel unlikely, your pup may decide that it’s no longer worth his time.

That’s why it’s important to change up when and how often you pay your dog with treats, so that your pup is kept excited and curious to see when the delicious reward will appear!

As for concerns about overfeeding: yes, canine obesity is on the rise, and the calories in many carb-heavy treats do add up quickly. One way to address this, in addition to exercising your dog regularly, is to set aside a portion of your pup’s regular food as a reward. Make Fido work for his dinner — literally!

Of course, the number one way to keep your food-motivated dog focused is to pay him with “the good stuff” — the high value training treats that your dog is really willing to work for! As dog trainer Kevin Duggan assures: 

“There is nothing wrong with using treats to train your dog. If you’re thinking it’s all just bribery, remember who is holding the treats. As the human, we have the capability to control everything that our dogs enjoy in life. All we have to do is ask them to do something before giving them that thing and that equals paying the dog.”

The best dog training treats are delicious enough to keep your dog’s interest, with enough nutritional value to complement (instead of sabotage) Fido’s healthy diet. Aim for high-quality, healthy dog training treats that are natural, limited ingredient and grain free.

A perfect example of healthy dog training treats are Freeze-Dried Beef Bites. These fantastic high-value treats are made of good, clean protein that dogs immediately crave. Plus, they’re on sale right now with a “Buy One, Get One Free” deal — an incredible opportunity to save by buying dog training treats in bulk!

Paying a Play-Motivated or Toy-Motivated Dog

Does your dog get insatiable “zoomies?” Will your pup happily play fetch until the cows come home? You may have a play-motivated or toy-motivated dog on your hands!

Some dogs believe that food is the pinnacle of existence. But other dogs are of a different opinion…they may think to themselves, “Yeah, food is great and all, but do you know what I REALLY want? To sink my teeth into that toy and shake the stuffing straight out of it! Now THAT’S living!

There are many dogs, particularly working breeds with a high drive and limitless energy, who are desperate for a bit of tug-o-war or a few tosses of the tennis ball — and they’ll do whatever you want to make that happen!

Many police dogs and other “dogs with jobs” are trained this way. That burning desire for play motivates even the most impatient and energetic dog to find the focus and self-control to do as they’re told…and in exchange, they get the chance to let loose!

If you have a toy-motivated dog, it may require you to change your way of thinking. Don’t leave your dog’s favorite toys where Fido can easily access them; only take them out when it’s time to train, and make your pup work for them.

It may feel mean to restrict your dog’s access to their favorite things, or make them earn their own toys. (After all, wouldn’t you be annoyed if someone took your phone away and made you do silly tricks to get it back?) 

Yet our dogs don’t think that way. They see training as a fun puzzle to solve: What do I have to do to get the thing I want? Figuring out the correct answer is a game that dogs naturally enjoy.

Important Note: If your dog has issues with resource guarding and freezes, growls, or raises their hackles when you try to take their toy or bone away, approach that behavior with caution. “Stealing” your dog’s toy could increase their insecurity and anxiety, confirming their fear that their prized possessions can be snatched away at any time.

One way to manage this behavior is to “buy” the resource your dog is guarding with something that is equally or even more valuable. (This is why it’s crucial to know your dog’s currency hierarchy, so you can pull out your dog’s equivalent of $100 bills when needed). After all, would you really give up one of your favorite things for free? No — but you may be willing to sell it! 

Working through resource guarding can be tricky to do. Consult a professional trainer if you’re unsure.

More Ways to Pay Your Dog

Just because you don’t have a treat or toy to hand doesn’t mean you can get away with not paying your dog for a job well done. According to the Centre for Canine Education, if you look at the world through your dog’s eyes, you’ll see that the opportunities for rewards are endless:

“You're getting ready to head into the dog park and when you get to the gate, you ask your dog to sit as you unclip the leash. What could you do to reinforce such a polite sitting behavior? You could click and feed, however in that moment, what would be most reinforcing for a dog who loves the park? Opening the gate and giving your release cue! That in itself is likely the most reinforcing thing you could offer. While your dog may be food motivated, in that moment, food would take a back seat to off-leash play with her canine besties!”

Giving your dog the freedom to do their own thing can be a powerful payment. That can either mean literally releasing your dog from the leash, or verbally releasing them from a command (by saying “Okay!” or “Break!”).

If you notice your dog desperately wanting to go through a door, play in the backyard or sniff something interesting, use Fido’s enthusiasm to your advantage by asking for good behavior before they can do that thing they want to do. If you have a dog-loving or people-loving pooch, allowing Fido to greet a new friend makes a great “jackpot” reward.

Once your dog makes the connection that “doing what Mom wants = good things are likely to happen,” you’re well on your way to a dog who listens — whether you’re carrying a treat pouch or tennis ball at the time, or not!

And of course, don’t be stingy with the easiest rewards: praise, eye contact, and a good ‘ole butt-scratch! 

Whether you have a dog who thinks with their stomach or a pup who just wants something to chase, each dog has their own favorite currency.

Yet whether your dog is play-motivated or food-motivated, remember to change up your currencies now and again. Not knowing when they’ll receive a reward they like and when they’ll receive a reward they LOVE will keep Fido invested. Those are odds your dog will bet on!

That’s why it’s always worth it to stock up on healthy training treats while you have the chance. By the way, now is the perfect time to take advantage of our amazing Buy One, Get One Free deal for Nature’s Advantage Freeze-Dried Beef Bites — high-quality, grain free training treats that your dog will happily work for!

Simply use code BEEFBITES at checkout, valid now through the end of July.

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