Paying Your Dog for a Job Well Done
Updated: Aug 28
Reward-based dog training is offering something to your dog when they perform a behavior to increase the likelihood they will do that behavior again. This is also called positive reinforcement!
What does “pay your dog” mean?
Well, it’s just like when you go to work and expect a paycheck for that work.
Paying your dog is giving them something they have chosen to be reinforcing or valuable (like food or play) for doing a task that you asked them to do. It means understanding that a job well done is deserving of reinforcement!
When I ask my dog to perform a specific cue, it is unlikely that he wants to do that cue right at that moment (e.g. walking nicely on the leash instead of running around freely). I realize this and appreciate the respect he has for me to be able to listen to a given cue, despite having the free will to not listen if he so chooses. I believe that a job well done should be paid! Especially if I’m asking my dog to perform this job. Put it this way, I choose when to ask my dog to sit, he doesn’t ask to be put into a sit; the least I can do is pay him for doing what I ask.
Payment can come in many forms!
· Giving space
· And more!
It is important to understand that your dog decides what is reinforcing and what isn’t. You might be giving verbal praise as payment, but is it really what your dog wants? Be sure to check with your dog to see what kind of reinforcers you should use (hint: most dogs don’t find verbal praise reinforcing naturally). Your dog might find a particular kind of treat boring or unsatisfactory, so find out what kind they prefer. Imagine yourself at work one day and your boss says “instead of cash, your paychecks will be given as candy”. You might like candy, but you probably like money more. Money, for people, is a major reinforcer because we can use it to provide ourselves with lots of other reinforcers (food, water, shelter, etc.).
Payment can also be situational. Maybe you don’t want to take money as payment for helping your friend move, but them buying you a pizza to share is more likely to be an acceptable form of payment for you in that moment. Just the same, maybe your dog doesn’t want treats after a meal, but play time is more likely to spike their interest.
There are also different types of reinforcers!
Primary reinforcers are biological necessities such as food, water, and safety.
Conditioned reinforcers are things paired with primary reinforcers such as a clicker for training, or the treat bag crinkling before it is opened. Conditioned reinforcers consistently come just before a primary reinforcer is given. You having a notification on your phone about your paycheck being deposited would be a good example. The money is the primary reinforcer but the notification alerts you of the money so it too becomes a reinforcer.
There are also secondary reinforcers and beyond!
Now let’s talk about bonuses!
What would you do if your boss walked up to you one day and said “You worked really hard today, I’m going to give you a bonus on your paycheck for today’s hard work.” You would no doubt feel thrilled! You should apply this same feeling to your dog when they do something beyond expectation or simply just for doing a job well done. An appropriate “bonus” in dog terms would be 5 or 10 treats instead of just one, or getting to chase the ball a few extra times before going inside the house. Again, the most important thing is to make sure that the bonus you give, is something your dog actually wants.
Something I hear all too often during training is "When do I stop giving treats?" or "It seems like I'm just giving him food, how is this helping?". These are valid questions so let me address them:
1. In the beginning, you want to offer consistent reinforcers to keep a behavior going. It takes longer than a few training sessions for a behavior to generalize (i.e. become consistent no matter the environment or stimuli around) which means you'll need to rely on treats (and other reinforcers) for a while. This is definitely not a bad thing. Each time you provide your dog with something they see as valuable you are establishing a positive relationship between you and them. Food rewards are the most common reward given during training because food has the ability to change your dogs brain chemistry. However don't be afraid to give your dog some extra tosses of the ball if they are finally dropping it on cue for the first time, or some attention for sitting by your side instead of jumping on you. Combine reinforcers and use them together too if appropriate!
2. At some point in your training program, you'll see the behaviors become more generalized like mentioned above. This means you can start to wean down the food rewards and transition to other conditioned reinforcers like verbal praise. This doesn't mean that you have to stop reinforcing altogether, and you probably shouldn't. Doing so runs the risk of your dog no longer seeing that behavior as worth while so they unlearn what you taught them. Read more on intermittent reinforcement here.
Personally, I feel that if I am asking my dog to do something I should pay him. This means that when we do something together, whether it be a walk, playtime, or training time (usually these are all combined into one) I pay him. I don't pay him as much as I did when teaching him these behaviors, but I still pay him to let him know I'm proud of him.
A clear understanding of what your dog deems reinforcing and what they don’t will help any training program go so much smoother and quicker and on top of that, it’ll help to establish a positive bond between you and them. Nothing is better than having a dog that listens out of love and that sees you as an advocate who understands them and is there to help them, reward-based training gets you there. Don't be afraid to pay your dog when they earn it, and don't think you need to phase out of treats or reinforcers as quickly as possible. In fact, try to see the benefits that can be had by keeping these reinforcers around!