I admit it, I use treats when training because it is generally the easiest way to get a dog to work for me. Having the right motivation is what makes us do the things we do! In fact, the very definition of Motivation; “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way”.
I view food as motivation for dogs similar to a paycheck for humans. Most humans go to work not necessarily because they want to get up at 7am, fight traffic, sit in front of a screen or in meetings all day just to eventually sit in more traffic to get home and do it all again the next day. Hopefully, each of us finds personal satisfaction in daily accomplishments, or in my case, loves the ability to help others (and play with dogs), but the greater goal is often the paycheck. If we do a great job, hopefully the paycheck increases, or we get a big bonus (in dog training terms, we call that a Jackpot!) We may like our job, but if we are being honest, the paycheck is what keeps us coming back for more when the days feel long and tedious.
In reality, though, I eventually want my dog to offer a cue or behavior just because I ask and not to be always dependent on food. It’s crucial to reinforce/motivate your dog through the teaching and generalizing a skill. Once we know that they can perform even around distractions, and your dog “gets it”, then we should start talking about random reinforcement and real life rewards.
Random reinforcement can easily be understood like playing slot machines! You put in your token, pull the lever and hope for a reward. You might win the first time, the seventh time, or not at all, but you keep trying because there is always that possibility of the jackpot (a bonus for a job well-done)!
Real life rewards are a little different. I have a 110 pound Rottweiler who loves to go on walks. We are often complimented on how he stays beside me, even as we walk through crowds. Our training secret? He loves getting his ears rubbed, so while we walk through challenging situations, I massage the top of his head and rub his ears gently between my fingers. He is so happy with the attention and the mini-massage that he wouldn’t think of leaving my side where I can’t reach him.
When it comes to real-life rewards, we have to consider what our dogs really love. Time spent with you, the thrill of fetching a tennis ball, a belly rub/booty scratch, or offering verbal praise - a “good dog” in a happy tone of voice and some soul touching eye contact can be all your dog needs to keep working for you.
No matter where you are in your relationship and training with your dog, it is important to make sure that the rewards still come - both random and real life! To think we don’t need to offer something for a job well done would be similar to your boss telling you that since you’ve mastered your job, you no longer need a paycheck!
You might be surprised at what your dog is willing to work for - and how happy they seem to perform for little more than your positive attention and in turn, you might realize that those real-life rewards with your dog, are good for you too!