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Determining Your Reward for Clicker Training

October 7, 2013     Ed Frawley

It is important to use the right kind of reward for your dog. Dogs will have varying degrees of what they like and don't like in a treat. You need to find something that the dog likes best. It needs to be so good that the dog is willing to do anything to get it.

Steak can be a good choice as a treat. Notice how small the pieces need to be cut.
This small size is perfect as a treat for your dog.

Treats need to be a large enough size to motivate your dog to want another one and yet, small enough so that the dog doesn't take minutes to eat it. If you make the treat too small, your might start to lose focus because it's simply inhaling it. You may need to experience to find the right size. We find that most soft training treats like the Zuke's Mini Naturals are a good size.

The best treats won't crumble up into small pieces and fall on the floor. This can be distracting and your dog can lose focus as it tries to pick up the crumbs. Soft training treats are perfect for clicker training. Pick a flavor your dog loves, this will keep him interested and wanting more. His drive will stay high.

Soft training treats located to the left, steak pieces on the right.

You will need to take time to establish the list of dog treats your dog loves. Some dogs can become too distracted with a very high-value treat. They will lose focus and won't be able to think. If that happens, you need to get a reward with lesser value but still enough to keep your dog engaged.

However, when you change you training area to a location with many distractions, the treat of highest value will be the best kind of treat to use. This will cancel out the distractions and keep your dog interested in the training. Depending on circumstances, you'll need to adjust a few things to get the most out of your training.

You can also reward different levels of treats when clicker training your dog. Reserve higher value treats for a really good or quick effort and a lower-value reward for a so-so effort.

On How to Ask Your Dog His Favorite Treat

Figuring out your dog's favorite treat is an easy process. You'll need to first tie him to a post. Then hold out a treat close to his nose. Don't let him have it. Simply lay it on the ground just out of his reach.

Do this with two different treats. Lay them down and see which one your dog eats first. Repeat the exercise several times. You'll also need to reverse the position of the treats to make sure he does like one over the other. Add a third treat and you'll find out which treat has the highest and lowest values.

Knowing your dog's favorite treat will help you later on in training. Dogs will all vary and some will require the highest level treat to be motivated while others simply need a good treat.

Above, we've assigned the treats to different levels from our dog's favorite to least favorite.
Level 1 notes the most favorite while Level 3 is the least favorite.

Food vs. Toy Rewards

There will be times when a food reward is the best reward to give and other times, a toy. Using both will make you a better trainer.

Dogs with high prey drive can get over-stimulated when they know the toy is a reward. They will have too much drive that they'll lose focus and shut down. Many trainers think, "The more drive, the better." However, this isn't the case.

Before you start using a toy, the following three things will need to have been learned:

  1. The toy is only fun because he is playing with his handler. We need to teach the dog not to "self-reward" into a toy. He needs to understand that it's fun because you're playing with him, not because he is playing with the toy himself.

  2. The dog will drop the toy when told to (usually with the command "OUT"). This needs to be an easy and learned task for it to work in clicker training. If you have to use large amounts of pressure to get the dog to release the toy, then the toy will lose value. Instead of thinking about the reward, the dog will start thinking about the pressure. Keep clicker training a positive experience.

  3. The dog will return the toy when it is released. If the dog cannot return the toy, then you won't be able to keep him concentrated let alone, start the next rep.

Many trainers use both food and toy rewards. Switching between one and the other can increase the speed in the exercise. In many cases, toys are used to teach the dog Stimulus Control. We'll be discussing Stimulus Control in future articles.

The three things your dog needs to know before using toys as a reward for clicker training.