Are You Using the Right Reward?
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
"You can ONLY use treats!"
"You can ONLY use toys!"
"You can ONLY use verbal praise!"
All of these statements are 100% false. It is absolutely true that certain rewards work better than others with some dogs, but that doesn't mean that is your ONLY option or that your dog's preference cannot change over time.
"But you start your dogs on food!"
That is true. Dogs need food to survive. There is no inherent training necessary in getting a dog to actively seek out or hunt for food, if it is high-value enough.
"See! You only want to use food!"
If there is a dog who has an INSANE inherent toy-drive, they may absolutely seek and hunt for a toy instead. It all depends on the dog.
"Fine. But what if they are on odor? You only use food!"
I can see why you would think that, let me explain: most handlers do not know how to effectively use a toy with their dogs.
Don't take this personally! Knowing how to make a toy come alive, to elicit that response to prey while not sending the dog over-the-top, or getting your hand accidentally bit, is an art. It is tricky. It is downright HARD!
Feeding a dog a treat is SO much easier and typically will not send the dog off the deep end arousal-wise.
Especially when human students are first being introduced to the concept of Scent Work, I have to make a choice as an instructor on how much I want to bombard them with! The main goal is to get them to better read their dog, which is challenging enough. So I often opt to have handlers use food rewards in the beginning and toys during their party celebrations after the entire search is done. Once they are more experienced, we will discuss whether it may be a good idea to move the toy into the rewards for each individual hide as well.
Does that mean that I don't think handlers should work on and practice their toy skills outside of the context of Scent Work and then weave them back in? Of course not!
If for no other reason, handlers should want to have as many tools in their toolbox as possible. Food and treats may be working well, but if you can really turn your dog onto a toy with effective play, it can take ALL of your training and interactions to a whole other level!
"...But I don't know what to do about the pairing!"
This can be tricky, but do not feel pigeon-holed! You can try a number of things:
Still pair with food, so the dog is self-rewarding with food but the secondary reward you are giving them is excited play with the toy.
Have the toy placed with the hide, for instance inside the open box. The main thing is to ensure you are NOT promoting the dog to become destructive in trying to get their toy (so for container searches, keep the containers open to allow the dog to self-reward by grabbing the toy).
If you are pairing multiple hides, use multiple toys (ideally all the same type and value) and have a secondary toy on you to reward the dog and then prompt them to continue hunting.
"I don't want to use toys!"
You don't have to! This is your dog and your Scent Work journey, you decide what you do and do not do. You don't HAVE to do anything.
However, you should be mindful about your choices and be able to explain WHY you are making your choices. Evaluate your dog and the way they search. Are they excited and engaged as they are searching or are they simply going through the motions? Not every dog is going to be a Tasmanian devil as they are working a search, but you can tell when a dog LOVES what they are doing and when a dog is simply going through the motions because their person asked them to. If you think your dog falls into the latter camp, I implore you to change up your reward system.
Experimenting is NOT a bad thing when it comes to figuring out what your dog enjoys and if they STILL enjoy it as much as they did before. That's right, your dog is an individual sentient being with emotions and opinions that will develop, shift and change over time. Who knew?!
"I just want my dog to search and find the hides, I will reward them when they are all done."
This is where I am going to insert some personal preference and one of the things I LOVE about Scent Work: even in competition, you are allowed to reward your dog at each hide and are even encouraged to do so. So...why are we not doing that in training?
"Intermittent rewarding can be an effective way to train!"
Only if you are still rewarding.
Let me give you a non-Scent Work example: when I ask my dog to sit, he may get a treat, some copious verbal praise, an opportunity to play or access to an area he wanted to get to (the backyard, the car, etc). The key point being he is STILL getting a reward!
So if you wanted to use this approach in Scent Work, in my opinion, you had better be certain you are 1. still rewarding the dog and 2. whatever you are using is rewarding the dog.
What could this look like? For straight-forward hides, you give copious verbal praise that your dog ENJOYS followed up with a mid-value treat, whereas for more challenging hides you play with a toy and for super challenging hides, you jackpot your dog (feeding them 3, 5, 10, even 15) high-value treats one right after another while telling them how awesome they are.
This is not what most people think of when they think about intermittent rewarding.
Again, in my opinion, we are asking our companion dogs to go and hunt for novel odors that mean absolutely nothing to them, oftentimes in harrowing environments (slippery floors, echoing and cavernous rooms, sensory overload exteriors, etc,) and unbelievable conditions (hellish heat, frostbite inducing cold, torrential downpours, tornado-like winds, etc.)...the least we can do is reward them for that effort!
What does all of this really mean?
Evaluate what you are using for your rewards and HOW you are using them. Does your dog truly find them rewarding? Are these rewards helping your training goals or are the results lacking or flat? Are you leveraging these rewards to their fullest potential or are you being stingy?
Every dog will be different. That means if you live with four dogs who do Scent Work, you can expect to have unique reward systems for each dog. You don't? Take a critical look to see if this is indeed the best approach or one that you are doing out of convenience or familiarity, knowing that you are not alone! Being a thoughtful and mindful trainer is challenging and even tiring sometimes, but so incredibly worth it in the end.
So, are YOU using the right rewards for YOUR dog?
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!