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What Makes a Reward Rewarding?

"Reward your dog"

We've heard this many, many times in many formats. It takes a lot of experience to get the best from a reward—where the reward delivers everything the dog needs in order to offer the behavior again and again, with passion.

good dog food dish

Often delivery of a reward is not enough; many other factors influence the effect of the reward. Back in "olden times," class instructors were perpetually yelling "praise your dog." It seemed to be the hardest challenge for many folk to praise the dog in a way that was actually rewarding for that dog.

We grow up with the illusion that to say "good dog" is sufficient, and that the dog will understand immediately that the task was carried out correctly, even when said through gritted teeth. You really mean "good dog." Yeah. It sounds simple, but poor delivery can make the reward more trouble than its value, and can have a backlash effect on the training and learning process.

Remember that a reward is only effective if the receiver of the reward finds it rewarding. Run down this reward checklist and make sure that, for the dog you are training this minute, the reward is doing the appropriate job.

Food rewards

Not all dogs find all food rewarding. Dogs can be motivated more by the anticipation of the food than by the food itself. I know a few dogs that can successfully catch the food at the back of the mouth, store it in the mouth for several minutes, and cough the lot up to enjoy later—especially when training is finished and all the other dogs are watching.

Poor delivery can make the reward more trouble than its value.

Wet food with a high scent is stimulating to a dog. Dogs do not need previous knowledge to know that meat is what they want. While they can learn that cheese is rewarding, it does not have quite the effect of raw, fresh meat.

The factors influencing food reward decisions are:

1. Desirability
Does the dog want that reward? How can you rate desirability? Offer two choices of food, one in either hand, half close your fists, and waft the scents of the food under the dog's nose until you see a preference for one food more than the other. It may be that there is no preference. It is the smell of the food that will motivate the dog, not eating it.

2. Pocketability
Can you carry this food easily while training? Will it ruin your pocket? Will it spoil if left for a few hours? Can you take one piece out of your pocket at a time quickly?

3. Stimulating scent
Does the food give off enough scent to interest the dog? Remember, your hands will also become scented and act as a continuous reminder of the availability of rewards. Food such as kibble may be good for the dog, but a dried kibble is usually quite low in scent until dampened with warm water—which certainly removes its pocketability, as it would turn to mush after 15 minutes!

4. Portion control
Can you deliver small enough chunks to be eaten quickly? Raw meat is an excellent treat, but the very devil to flick off your fingers if it is in very small chunks. For the toy dogs, the appropriate size may be half the size of your fingernail.

5. Price
Some expensive foods would be greatly appreciated by many dogs. As a special treat, or for special occasions, your pocket may stretch that far, but for everyday training it may get too expensive to purchase—or may be expensive in time to prepare.

6. Preparation
Treat preparation becomes a daily task, and can be part of warming up the dogs for their training sessions. Nearly all food requires some preparation, which is not always practical unless you have a good knife and chopping board at your disposal. Chicken pieces are great treats, but require cooking, peeling off the carcass, and then dicing. (And, if chicken pieces are overcooked, they will disintegrate in your pocket.)

7. Deliverability
Can you deliver with your hands quickly? Can the dog take the treat without fingers? If the treat is delivered to the floor, can the dog see it easily? Liver cake is a great treat, with a good scent and nutritionally balanced, but it is a disaster if it crumbles on contact with the floor. The dog has to spend energy finding every last crumb—or the crumb becomes a distraction at a later time.

8. Thirst factors
Many foods that are high in flavor or scent are also high in salt (sodium) content and will leave dogs very thirsty afterwards.

[Verbal] praise needs to reflect the mood in cadence, tone, and pitch.

Verbal praise rewards

This is not an easy skill to acquire. Some dogs can become overexcited with praise; others are quite immune to flattery. For a dog living in a busy "verbal" household, praise can pass them by as white noise. The response of the dog is important, and praise needs to be appropriate to the dog and to the behavior.

Verbal praise is certainly a good standby in the absence of other rewards. Association needs to be well conditioned to make praise effective, and the link between the emotional state and the verbal praise must continue for the rest of the life of that praise. The chosen words or tone must be used consistently in conjunction with activities the dog finds pleasurable. This is easy to incorporate into everyday interactions with the dog.

You can relax a dog with verbal praise that has been associated with naturally relaxed behavior. This praise needs to reflect the mood in cadence, tone, and pitch.

Equally, you can excite a dog with praise that has been associated with exciting activities, such as hunting for food or a toy, or a greeting. Again the praise needs to reflect the mood.

Physical rewards

This kind of reward can vary—from physically stepping away from the dog to a deep massage—again depending on what that dog finds rewarding, not what the person finds rewarding. Often a trainer or owner is shaped by the first dog they train. This may be a dog that found physical contact very rewarding, and the owner was equally comfortable touching and stroking the dog. Another dog may find this kind of interaction quite irritating—physical praise needs to be good for the dog and appropriate to the behavior.

Physical praise needs to be good for the dog and appropriate to the behavior.

My dogs very much like physical contact. It is usually conditioned as very young puppies and in association with much appreciated attention. Living in a multi-dog household, one-to-one attention is highly rewarding. Many behaviors can be rewarded that way, behaviors that would otherwise be objectionable—such as grooming.

But the dogs all like different physical contact, from the major hug Arnold enjoys to the scratch on the chest that Kent enjoys. The collies love attention and fussing, but generally detest the idea of a cuddle. They like to lean on me for contact, but would not miss grooming if it never happened again. I have met collies that find physical proximity uncomfortable, probably an unplanned outcome of generations of farm breeding (most farm dogs are not popular neighbors on wet days when they stink of sheep and cow dung). These dogs will often exhibit stress when taught close heel positions, or in freestyle when cued to weave through the handler's legs. They are far happier at a distance, where they can also use their eyes to monitor cues and activities.

We've turned around a few recall dogs with an excessive amount of physical flattery and verbal nonsense. This has been especially effective for the dogs that would return for a slice of liver, but eat and be off. I hold the collar with one hand and physically praise the dogs with hand contact, quite vigorous rubbing, and verbal singing for at least 60 seconds. This is a considerably long time if you actually keep an eye on your watch. If done effectively, you should be puffing from effort by the end. The dog will certainly want to have a good shake to settle the fur back into order, and then resume hunting. Ten or more sessions of this on a successful recall and you can see the dogs become addicted to it. Warnings: you risk transferring every ounce of dirt from the dog to your hands and clothing, and if this training is carried out effectively, you will have a dog that sticks to you more than is healthy! Go on, off you go!

Toy rewards

Toys can be intrinsically rewarding. A dog may enjoy the texture and mouthing of an object—particularly if the object has a pleasant association from puppy times. The dog may enjoy the noise produced, or tossing the toy around and playing with it with their feet. Toys are excellent rewards for behaviors when the dog needs to relieve some stress or entertain itself for a while.

Game rewards

Games can be particularly beneficial when played in partnership with people. The game itself is rewarding. The dog can associate the reward with an object or a cue word if it is used with consideration and yields pleasure in our company. During play the dog learns a lot about our body cues and the way we move, play, change balance, give up, and persist.

Games need to have rules and can vary in intensity, risk, points scored, and duration. They can be very exciting or simply a mutual tug to relieve stress. Games can arouse the dog, teach the dog self control, and can transfer emotional context to the proceeding behavior. Games with other dogs can also be used as a reward, when appropriate to a specific situation; an example would be exhibiting self control around playmates, followed by playtime.

With all rewards, the value, duration, placement, and delivery must be pre-planned.

With all rewards, the value, duration, placement, and delivery must be pre-planned, as each can impact the effectiveness of the reward.


The length of time a reward takes will punctuate the rhythm of the behavior being taught. If a dog has run away from another dog on a recall and come across a field, the reward duration should equal the length of time the dog has had to maintain concentration on the behavior. The reward should reflect the amount of self control the dog needed to leave a rewarding situation.

If you are teaching the dog to paw tap an object, the reward should be equal in duration to the behavior. Tap = bite, swallow.

To keep short punctuation with physical praise I would not exceed 3 seconds, and to extend the delivery of a treat I would stretch the process up to 10 seconds. The process can begin with the click, followed by an 8 second mini-drama that ends in the food delivery. Remember, anticipation of a reward is as, if not more, rewarding than the acquisition itself. As soon as the dog hears the click and looks for the reward, you can begin moving toward the food container (I have even asked the dog to join me in a hunt for the container). Then open up the pot—ensure a good waft in the direction of the nose—shuffle the food around the pot for a few seconds, deciding which piece looks to be the absolute best one for that absolutely superb behavior. All of that interactive process is the reward.

A long reward delivery carries a danger that the behavior can be forgotten in the all-consuming reward moment. This is particularly true when teaching new behaviors, especially puzzle solving. The reward needs to be simple, non-distracting, consistent, and quick. (Note that if you are practicing memory skills, using long duration rewards as a distraction can improve concentration.)

Food delivery may be quick, but if the process of eating the reward begins with a mini search, is followed by a decision-making sniff and then a quality assurance tasting session, then the duration of the process can become unrewarding. Using familiar foods will reduce this time, as will food that is easily picked up and swallowed.

My Mabel demonstrated that, although a branded treat may have everything required in flavor and size, it got stuck between her teeth. It required heavy duty tongue gymnastics to complete the process-by which time she had completely forgotten what she was doing and fluency never ever peeked over the horizon! Other dogs will collect the food and still be eating during the next behavior—multi-taskers!

Games can vary greatly in duration; a three second tug time is perfect. Long games will not only interfere with memory skills, but extract energy from the reserve. Develop a variety of games of different energies, a gentle tug that can last longer or the vigorous tug workout that cannot be repeated too many times.


Placement can make or break a behavior. Although the click promises a reward, if the reward takes too long to occur, or is preceded by a lengthy search, then it loses value and can become punishing.

I have seen dogs flinch when they hear the click, because the food was delivered to the dog at such an alarming rate and with such vigor that the dog anticipated an unpleasant process. When food rewards come too quickly or too slowly, the behavior rate and progress can definitely slow.

When learning new behaviors, the placement of the reward should set the dog up at the optimum place to begin the next behavior. If the dog gets the treat at the physical point of completion, then it will need to initiate one or more movements to find the starting place of the next behavior. If you are practicing the drop down position from standing, click for the correct movement but reward the dog in the standing position. This sets the dog up to finish the reward and, without delay, begin the behavior again. This placement planning is valuable when teaching fluency, especially in connection with repetitive muscle movements.

If food is delivered to the place of completion, two outcomes will affect the behavior. First, the reinforcement balance will be heavily loaded to the end result, the outcome, with both the click and the reward at the same point. This leaves the opening behavior less reinforced, and very often it is the opening of the behavior that ensures the correct completion. Second, the dog may relax the muscles on completion of the behavior and during the reward process. This is useful if you want to teach duration of a behavior, but a nuisance if you want to teach quick responses, or fast repetitions of a behavior.

Teaching the dog to drop on cue, you are looking for:

  • A quick relation between the cue and the behavior
  • A contraction of the muscles that will lead to an accurate dropping movement (as opposed to a sit down or bow down movement)
  • A poised position on the floor

If the poised drop position is to be used as a control mechanism or demonstration of control, it is highly likely that the dog will need to leave that position very quickly for another movement. The muscles need to be held poised and ready for action. By rewarding in a standing position, the dog will learn to drop, hold the muscles, and then rise quickly for the reward. If you are looking for duration in the poised drop position, then the click can be delayed in small increments.

If I am looking to settle a dog for a relaxed duration, then I will teach the dog to change onto one hip, on the cue "settle." In this case the reward will come to the dog after the (soft) click. (I discriminate with different clicks to indicate different messages. "Yeah, go to it, chase the food" with the ordinary click, and "You done good, I am returning with your food" with a muffled click.)

Placement needs to be variable, appropriate for the behavior you are trying to teach, and appropriate for the dog that is trying to learn.

I am teaching Dottie to turn her head to her right. I sit in a chair, with food at nose height. To prevent the movement being linked too strongly to one position only, I vary the base position—with her in the stand, sit, or down. As she moves her head, I click and offer the food on her left. She does not need to move her feet to collect the food. I can maintain the base position, and by turning her head to the other direction, I am setting up the opening for the muscles on the right side of her neck to want to move. Once she has acquired the movement, to extend duration of the pose I would swap the delivery point to the outcome of the movement—holding the head to her right. The placement changes as the outcome of the learning changes. Once the behavior is established, I vary the placement.

Check the ears

I will often test a verbal cue by tossing a treat away, giving the cue while the dog is picking up the treat. At that moment, the dog is not looking at me and can only listen to the cue. But, (and there is always a dog called "But") some dogs concentrate so much on the eating process that they do not hear any cues at that time.

Make reward collection simple

Try not to use placement as a competition. Imagine completing your week's work and going to the pay office to collect the brown envelope. You hear, "This week your pay is somewhere in the third office on the right. You'll need to go and find it." Nice. Thank you.

That process could easily add distaste to the reward, and reduce its value. If you are a "treat tosser," become a "treat placer." Do not rely on your tossing accuracy, especially for visually challenged dogs. Remember to wait for the dog to look at your hand before you throw, so that the dog has a chance of seeing when and where the food has gone. If it's possible for the food to disappear into a confusing background, use a tray, sheet, or bowl where the dog can be assured of acquisition. Again, set this up at the behavior's starting point. If you want a variable and accurate placement as you extend the opening behavior, then begin the reward drama as soon as the dog looks at you after the click, and take the treat to the exact spot.

Placement can vary from low movement, an unobtrusive placement, to the dog running with you to collect a toy from another room, the car, or the kitchen. The reward begins as soon as you start the sequence that ends in a reward. Do not neglect to teach your dog this sequence so that it becomes familiar.

In acquiring new behaviors, the click will be more important to the learner than the reward.


The style of delivery plays a large part in training a behavior successfully. For a dog concentrating on click-listening, the delivery needs to be consistent, fast, and done with quiet body language. The movement to deliver should not intrude on the dog's concentration or detract from the click. In acquiring new behaviors, the click will be more important to the learner than the reward. The dog needs to pinpoint exactly what was happening when the click happened, compare it to what happened on the previous clicks, begin to see the pattern forming, and experiment with the direction the learning is taking. For many dogs this puzzle-solving process is engaging and rewarding, which allows the trainer to use a lower value reward than, perhaps, the finished behavior requires, because the self rewarding nature of learning is different from practice.

For an example at the other extreme, I teach the recall through a nose touch to hand, with an exciting chase-the-sausage game. On the click, I begin the body language of a ten pin bowler, and give the sausage chunk as much acceleration as possible down the room. To make it more exciting, I vary the direction, often feigning one way but calling the dog quickly to look at me, and see that I've thrown the other way—the game is chasing the moving sausage, not hunting for the unseen sausage. Mini hot dogs, 1 inch or 2 centimeters long, are perfect for this. They bounce along with a "can't catch me" cheeky little swagger. Most dogs will not resist the challenge for long. The effect it has on the recall is immediate—the faster the chase for the sausage, the faster the recall to touch. You can time the cue for while the sausage is being "killed" or after swallow—success for a running recall is safer after swallow, not during eating.

By making a game out of the style of delivery, we double the value of the reward, and introduce an emotional color to the behavior we are trying to teach. The fun of sausage chasing becomes inextricably linked to recall, making recall almost as much fun.

For the dog whose world ticks quite slowly, a slow deliberate delivery will match that learning style. You give the cue to wave a paw, they: blink twice (like a hard drive accessing a database for a data match), send message to rear end to park, move body mass backward into sit, shuffle upper weight to one side to allow considered elevation of front limb. Click. Trainer lifts hand in slowly elevated movement towards box of food, reaches in and produces fresh kill, rolls kill back into the center of hand and, beginning at shoulder height, slowly lowers the opening hand for easy delivery to mouth region.

This strategy will also work for the dogs that are "chivviers"—who, after the click, telepathically transmit messages of hurry, hurry, hurry to the deliverer. The frenzy and frustration can become an increasing spiral, over-influencing the success of each behavior. This may be a blessing for a dog that begins a behavior with a "manana" attitude, but an opposing style of delivery can coax the frenzied dog to being more relaxed. The highly animated style of delivery can light the fire of the slow-to-warm. But some dogs only work at one speed, and trying to change this one speed can add frustration and become punishing.

But some dogs only work at one speed, and trying to change this one speed can add frustration and become punishing.

Access to another behavior

If a behavior is highly rewarding, then that behavior can be used as a reward for another behavior. The cue for the rewarding behavior will act as the click. This is a great technique that uses the emotion of the rewarding behavior to influence the new behavior.

It is particularly obvious that if you use games to reward behaviors, than the cues for the game can replace the click. But just as easily you can use a movement such as spin, jump, or roll over as a reward for another behavior if the dog finds it rewarding. This is apparent in agility where the cue to hit a contact point or turn on cue is rewarded by the cue (click) for the next apparatus, which in turn is rewarding.

A gundog or sheepdog will hold the steady position requested by the handler with rock-like steadiness, because that behavior is rewarded by the highest reward: "Get out there and do the job." This technique of using one behavior as a reward for another is particularly useful when teaching chains of behaviors. But handle the strategy with caution, as the opportunity for the dog to self-reward must be protected.

Test the reward

You can experiment with a range of rewards with quite interesting and important results. Begin by making a list of events that you consider rewarding for the dog. For example:

  • lick of pâté
  • chunk of cheese
  • piece of raw heart
  • "good boy"
  • pat on the head
  • hug
  • jump in the air
  • licking your face
  • tummy rub

Focusing on one event, set the dog up for a simple free shaping session. Choose an established behavior, such as paw tap, and transfer it to a new object. After the click, give the reward, perhaps the pat on the head. Take note of how many repetitions of the behavior the dog will offer in the next minute. If the rate of reinforcement—i.e. the number of clicks—stays constant or increases, then the pat on the head is rewarding. If it decreases, then remove it from your list of rewards.

I would not advise you to make a day of testing rewards, or the value of the click may become discharged, but it is worth making a check on that "verbal praise" or that new super-treat, checking how rewarding it is. The maintenance or increase in rate of reinforcement will give a fairly true indication of the value of the reward.

The cessation of the behavior after one click and test reward is unusual because the dog trusts the click. But cessation can begin after the second delivery of the test reward because the dog couldn't quite believe you forgot the reward. This is a sure indication that, in that situation, that reward is not rewarding.

Not only will the mechanical measurement of the rate of reinforcement give you direct results, but the way the dog returns to have another go or try again will, too. The passion to complete another behavior will be related to the passion for the reward, the confidence in the behavior, and the enjoyment of the learning process. Dogs are nearly perfect learners and they will excel, but the learning process can be disturbed by a low passion, poorly delivered, badly placed reward.

The passion to complete another behavior will be related to the passion for the reward, the confidence in the behavior, and the enjoyment of the learning process.

Comeback keenness is a measure of teaching skill, where the increments suit the learner and the motivation is to repeat the reward. If you are learning how to teach in appropriate increments, make sure your reward is motivating—in every aspect.

Have fun, train well, and be safe—guidelines to make the most of click-and-tug training.

(Originally published as "The Hidden Value of Rewards" in Teaching Dogs magazine, Volume 4, Issues 4 and 5. Reprinted with permission.)

About the author
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Kay Laurence is the founder of Learning About Dogs; author of many books, including the Clicker Trainers Course series; and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

What Makes a Reward Rewarding?

Excellent article - food for thought! :-))) Very much appreciated. Thank you Kay Laurence.

What to do when the dog chooses a different reward?

Long-time reader, first-time poster... I hope this is an appropriate place to ask this question! ;-)

I understand the information presented here about how to determine what a good reward for your dog is, what the value of rewards are, etc. But let's say your dog surprises you in the middle of something and a previously high-value reward is suddenly not as great as something else, and the dog chooses to do that something else.. what do you do at that moment?

Let me go into a specific example of my problem. I have two dogs, Bandit, an 11-year old chow/golden mix, and Juneau, a 2-year-old malamute/husky mix. Bandit is clicker-savvy, well-trained, knows me very well, learns things very fast, and is generally an awesome dog. Juneau we have had for about 5 months and he is still learning. I am still learning as well, as Bandit was a crossover dog, Juneau is my first clicker-only dog. He was from a rescue group and has had some emotional issues with trust and so forth, but training is now progressing fairly well. He is definitely not "clicker-savvy" yet, though.

Throughout training, I have used tiny pieces of cut-up hot dog for rewards. Bandit loves them, and so does Juneau... most of the time. I am now discovering that they are perhaps not such a high-value reward as I thought. His loose-leash walking is very good now, I walk both of them together on a single leash with a brace coupler, and we can usually get through the whole walk without needing Clicks/Treats. I am currently using C/T to reinforce a better response around other dogs and highly distracting people, which are the only things that Juneau has a hard time not stopping to stare at. Occasionally I will throw in a C/T for particularly good positioning, or for random events that don't distract them, like a car passing by, just to help maintain the behavior. Recently, on longer walks, I've been throwing in a potty/sniff break as a reward instead of a hot dog maybe once at a random point in the walk.

Bandit, when he hears the click, will immediately stop, like a statue, look at me and wait for his hot dog. If I say "Ok, go potty!" he will immediately take off for the nearest tree, even dragging the much larger Juneau with him if necessary (though they have taught themselves how to sniff and potty together and they both enjoy the break.) Juneau, when he hears the click, will usually immediately look at me, but will take a couple more steps before he stops, and isn't as intense in expecting his hot dog (although he does get intense and "snappy" when he's excited about a distraction but being rewarded for looking away from it.) Sometimes he doesn't look at me right away, but only after he stops. In general, he always takes and enjoys his hot dog, but he doesn't seem as enthusiastic about it when we're outside as when we are inside. But here's the kicker: sometimes, when I click, he will immediately start sniffing something nearby and ignore me. It's like he hears the click and has chosen a sniff break over a hot dog as his reward of choice. Now, obviously, this is telling me I need to find a higher-value reward for him. In fact, I plan to experiment with liver treats and other things this weekend after I've had time to go to the store. But for the meantime, or say he seemingly goes crazy for the liver treats but yet at some point it happens again with them too, what do I do when that happens? Do you ever allow the dog to choose his own reward? I think it would be difficult for me to do that, as I eventually want him to pull a wagon, and I can't have him choosing to wander off or try to pee while he's in harness. Currently, when it happens, I've been interrupting his behavior with a "No!" then giving him the hot dog when he looks at me, which he will then take. But I hate doing that too, because it takes away the value of the click... Any ideas?

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