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What is reward-based training?

Posted on Friday, June 12, 2020
A Pomeranian named Petey in "down" position on pause table, licking his lips
Petey waits on the pause table for his reward for executing this skill in an agility training class. | Photo: Rich Terrell

Often referred to as “positive reinforcement training,” reward-based training is exactly what it sounds like. It involves teaching your dog to offer the behaviors you like by rewarding those behaviors with things your dog likes. It can also desensitize your dog to scary things by forming associations with good things to make them less scary. Reward-based training is an incredibly effective way to train dogs and modify their behavior and is supported by well-established scientific principles and many years of real-life training with dogs and other species. 

All training offered at the Richmond SPCA—our public classes, School for Dogs, and enrichment and training for shelter pets—is reward based.

Trinket is a trained therapy dog who works eagerly for any type of food reward. Her favorite “paycheck” is chicken jerky. | Photo: Rich Terrell

Dogs find many things rewarding:

  • Food
  • Social time with people and other animals
  • Games and play
  • Toys
  • Instinctual behaviors (digging, chasing, barking, etc.)
  • Freedom and choice

Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.

Benefits of reward-based training

  • Effective and fun
  • Increases communication between you and your dog
  • Builds trust between you and your dog
  • Considers the emotional state of the dog and the effect of emotions on behavior
  • Can be successfully used to address behavior problems and to teach manners, tricks, agility and more

Drawbacks of reward-based training

There really aren’t any. It’s a myth that training with food and toys is a “bribe” and your dog won’t be able to listen and obey without food or toys present. This method of training rewards dogs frequently when behaviors are new, then slowly weans them off the need for immediate reinforcement as they become proficient at behaviors. Think of it like a kindergartner who needs a sticker for every assignment, but then moves through school and eventually graduates into the working world and receives a periodic paycheck.

Is punishment ever appropriate?

No training method is entirely without punishment. Ignoring the dog (when he jumps on you), sending him to his crate for a short “time out” and not delivering an anticipated treat are all punishments, albeit very mild ones. Our experience at the Richmond SPCA suggests that virtually all behaviors can be successfully taught or modified without the need for physical punishment at all, so all training is done with that in mind.  The criteria for what training techniques to use should start with the question: Will this cause fear, pain or harm to the animal? Proceed if the answer is no.

Note that dogs do what works to get what they want – fun, food, comfort, companionship, etc. If their people learn how to use this fact to their advantage (i.e. control all the resources), training a dog can be simple and fun!

Ollie has excelled at agility training and loves the sport. In beginner classes, food rewards are used for completing each obstacle. At advanced levels of play and competition, dogs complete multiple obstacles or an entire course for a single reward. | Photo: Rich Terrell

Alisha Fritz is the manager of training education at the Richmond SPCA, where she has been on staff since 2012. She first became involved with training in 2006, has been training professionally since 2009 and enjoys helping guardians work through behavior issues with their companions. She shares her home with 3 dogs, lots of small pets and a very patient husband.

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