Despite the effectiveness of reward based training, there are many that are either eager to phase out rewards or avoid rewards altogether. This often slows down training and the dog is labelled as ignorant or stubborn when they don’t offer the desired behaviour. Can you really train your dog’s effectively without rewards?
Consider an illustration. Imagine you found out that a colleague refused to work because your boss was not going to pay them. Would you conclude they were stubborn? Or would their response be justified? What if your boss expected them to work longer hours, including nights and weekends but was only willing to pay minimum wage? If your colleague refused to work, would their behaviour be classed as stubbornness?
When we expect our dogs to work for nothing, we are having unreasonable expectations that we wouldn't apply to ourselves, or anyone else for that matter. None of us work for nothing. When we perform work that requires more hours or more expertise, we expect a pay rise, and rightly so. So if our dog has to work harder, should we not give them a pay rise?
Many believe they should choose what rewards to use to train their dog. Granted you can use play, toys and praise as a reward instead of food, but only if your dog finds these rewards reinforcing. When you apply for a job, I'm sure one of the first things you look at is the pay. You will consider if the work required is worth the pay and if you decide you want better, you'll either ask for the desired amount or look elsewhere if they refuse.
This is the case for our dogs. You may offer rewards that you think have a reasonable value, nevertheless, your dog decides what they find reinforcing. They have their own individual personality and preferences and they will weigh up if what you’re are asking is actually worth it. They can't ask us to pay them more, so they may refuse to respond to training. It's not stubbornness, it's a lack of motivation because you are asking them to work harder and not increasing the pay.
There are so many benefits to using food rewards. Receiving a reward triggers the release of dopamine (which is a neurotransmitter), which is linked to the brains reward centre. Dopamine improves motivation, memory and learning, not to mention triggering a boost in confidence and improved self-esteem. By using food in training, you are actually harnessing your dog's body's natural processes to help them learn life skills and strengthening your relationship as a result. (Jay Gurden 2021)
What about praise as a reward? Imagine working really hard and at the end of the month you get a very grateful email from your new boss, commending your hard work, instead of paying you. How would you react? Obviously praise is always a nice thing and it certainly boosts our confidence but it doesn't exactly motivate us to keep working.
For us, the money is the primary reinforcer, meaning it’s the main reason we are motivated to do the work. Any praise, compliments our earnings, but can never replace it. Likewise, food is a primary reinforcer for dogs. Simply offering praise is not always enough. A study was conducted by Peter F. Cook (2016) comparing the effects of treats and praise by observing regions of the brain that are activated, when a dog anticipates a pleasurable consequence.
15 dogs were placed in a MRI to test the difference in anticipation between food and praise. In 13 of the 15 dogs, the reward region of the brain activated equally in response to praise as it did for food. This demonstrated that majority of the dogs found praise as valuable as food, however, there are some drawbacks to this study.
"In terms of measuring preference, dog social behaviours are highly susceptible to prior patterns of food REINFORCEMENT." (Bentosela et al., 2008; Elgier et al. 2009)
All the dogs involved in the study, were well trained dogs using reward based methods, in order to keep them calm and still in the MRI. Thus, the results of good engagement and response to praise, was likely a conditioned response to the primary reinforcer. In other words, the dogs learned to anticipate that praise, leads to food.
In comparison, another study, performed by Rooney and Cowan (2011), interactions between dog owners and their dogs were recorded. They were required to teach their dog a new task, one of which involved teaching the dog to fetch a ball, using a bag of treats sporadically, to reinforce the behaviour. The dogs that were more successful and quicker at learning the new task, were the ones that had received more food rewards in earlier training.
This study demonstrated that, “A past history of rewards-based training, increased a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” (Rooney and Cowan 2011)
So we can conclude that some dogs may value praise more than food and vice versa. However, your dog may offer the behaviour in response to praise because they are anticipating the treat, as proven in the above study. This can lead many to believe praise will work on its own, but when you make training more challenging or teach something new, your dog is likely going to become frustrated and disengaged. This is where many conclude their dog is being stubborn, when in reality they simply expect to be paid.
Humans seem to forget that society is driven by positive reinforcement. Children may be offered sweets if they do their homework. Parents may treat themselves to a glass of wine after a hard day. Students study hard to receive their certificate or diploma. People celebrate when they pass their driving test. In each area of our lives, we pursue goals and attain skills to reap the rewards.
Finally, using rewards in training, has endless benefits. It makes training fun, improves communication, speeds up your dog's learning, builds confidence, and creates optimism and motivation to learn new skills. Is it really a big sacrifice on your part to reward them with what they like for offering positive behaviour? After all, using rewards your dog finds reinforcing is a way to relay information that will benefit the both of you.
We have to acknowledge that the behaviours we expect of our dogs don't come naturally to them. While the behaviours you ask for may seem simple to your dog, they likely perceive it as boring work. Therefore, if you want to achieve your training goals, you have to make it worth your dog's time and effort. This means offering rewards that your dog's perceives as valuable, regardless of your preferences.
So when you are training your dog, remember giving minimum wage is going to result in minimum effort from your dog. When you expect them to work hard, don't be stubborn. Put your money where your mouth is, and pay your dog the wage they deserve.
Holly Leake is a dog writer and canine behaviourist who runs her own business in Staffordshire UK. Holly tutors our brand new ISCP Award in Dog Behaviour, Welfare and Training which you can see here.
Peter F. Cook, Ashley Prichard, Mark Spivak, Gregory S. Berns
Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs’ preference for praise vs food
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 11, Issue 12, December 2016, Pages 1853–1862, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw102
Published: 12 August 2016
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007
Bentosela et al., 2008; Elgier et al. 2009)