When teaching a dog a new trick, command, or behavior, you’ll want to have some Grade A treats on hand (think boiled chicken or steak) for that extra bit of motivation. But in the real world you’re not always going to have your treat pouch handy. You also don’t want your dog to only work for you when you have treats in your hand. As soon as possible for your training you will want to begin weaning your dog off of food treats and introducing real life rewards as an alternative. To help you get started, we’ve put together a list of real life rewards you can use instead of treats.
What to know before you get started:
Real life rewards are used as an alternative for food treats, and work best once your dog already knows the command you’re asking for. How do you know your dog is ready for real life rewards? A reasonable guideline is when your dog successfully completes a command 90% of the time you ask for it. Motivation is key for learning new commands, which is why most food-motivated dogs will learn faster when there is a yummy treat involved. For example, if you’re asking for a sit-stay before greeting a stranger, your dog should be successfully performing sit-stays in a high-traffic area using food treats 90% of the time.
1. Meal Time
Your dog is a scavenger and is naturally inclined to work for his meal. Before you place your dog’s food on the ground, ask him to perform a series of obedience commands. Work on sit, sit-stay, down, down-stay, or some other fun tricks. Only place the food on the ground when your dog has completed the command correctly. Be sure to give him your reward marker and lots of praise while putting the bowl down.
2. Leashing your Dog for a Walk
Before you leash your dog for a walk, ask for a sit-stay. If he gets up from the stay as you reach for your dog’s collar, immediately take the leash away and wait for your dog’s attention. Ask for the sit-stay again. Repeat until you’re able to successfully leash your dog for the walk. The reward then becomes being leashed and ready for the walk. Only allow your dog to leave his stay after you’ve given your release command (such as “okay!” or “let’s go!”).
3. Opening the Front Door
The doorway is a great place to practice sit-stay and down-stay. Once your dog is sit-staying for the leash, reach for the door handle. If your dog gets up from his stay, close the door and wait for your dog’s attention. Once he is focused on you, ask for your sit- or down-stay again. Repeat until you’re able to open the door fully. The reward is leaving the house for the walk. Only allow your dog to leave his stay after you’ve given your release command (such as “okay!” or “let’s go!”). If your dog is too excited to sit-stay by the front door, try practicing with a less-exciting door, such as in and out of your bedroom. For more polite door exercises, check out this brief training video.
4. Getting Out of the Car
If you’ve just pulled into the dog park parking lot and your dog is going bonkers in the back seat, exiting the car is an excellent real life reward. We always recommend using a vehicle safety harness when travelling. Once you’ve reached your destination and have safely parked, reach into the back seat and be sure your dog is safely removed from the harness and leashed correctly. With your dog still inside, exit your vehicle. Open the car door slightly and make sure you have a firm grasp on your dog’s leash. Ask for your dog to “wait”. The wait command does not require your dog to be in any particular position, but rather that he is staying where he is without moving. Open the door a bit further. If he begins to exit the vehicle, carefully close the door a bit further. Wait for your dog’s attention and ask for the command again. Repeat until you’re able to open the door fully. Only allow your dog to exit after you’ve given your release command.
5. Petting or Attention
Petting and affection can be used for dogs that live for your attention. Set yourself up somewhere comfortable and ask your dog for a “sit-stay”. While in position, lavish your dog with lots of petting, sweet-talk and attention. If he gets up from the sit-stay, immediately ignore your dog. Wait until he is calm, and ask for the command again. Only give your dog attention and pets while he is in position.
6. Throwing a Ball
If your dog loves playing fetch or is play-motivated, throwing a ball can be the best real-life reward. Ask for a basic obedience command before you throw your dog’s ball. If your sit-stay is very advanced, work on releasing your dog after you’ve already thrown the ball.
7. Greeting Strangers or Another Dog
If your dog is social, greeting a friend, stranger, or another dog is extremely rewarding. While walking on the street, if someone asks to pet your dog use the moment as a training opportunity. Tell the person you’re working with your dog on greeting strangers politely, and ask if they wouldn’t mind waiting for your dog to be ready. When your dog is focused on you, ask for a sit-stay. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you. Once you feel comfortable with your dog’s connection to you, give your release command (such as “okay!” or “say hi!”) and allow your dog to greet the stranger.
8. Entering Daycare
If your dog goes to dog daycare regularly, entering the playroom can become the reward. Tell your daycare handling staff that you’re working on introducing real life rewards to your dog’s routine obedience. Ask them to reinforce sit, sit-stay, down and down-stay before your dog can enter the playroom. The staff will be happy to accommodate your request for additional training.
Other Real Life Rewards
You know your dog best. What makes him the most happy? What does he enjoy most throughout the day? Perhaps your dog loves entering or exiting his crate. Maybe he really enjoys receiving a pig ear chew or his daily brushing. Use all of these motivators as a real-life reward opportunity to reinforce your training. Real life rewards help you command your dog’s attention even without your treat pouch handy and can strengthen your bond.