Teaching Animals Using Reward-Based Training

Dog training using treats

Reward-Based Training

Animals need to be motivated to learn and most modern-day trainers know that using some kind of reward helps drive that motivation. However, there are some owners who feel that their pet should obey them without using reward-based training techniques and then find it hard to understand why they aren’t responding to commands.  But we all need to be motivated to perform a task or to learn a new one don’t we?

For us, this starts at school. As children most of us remember being given verbal praise or a gold star for doing well.  At home, we might have been able to go out to play for tidying our bedroom. And for those of us who work, the pay cheque at the end of the month is a real motivator to get us out of bed on a morning!

Another name for using rewards to teach an animal is called positive reinforcement training. For many species such as dogs, food tends to be the best motivator and scientist have found that in most cases it is better at reinforcing a behaviour than social interaction such as petting or praise.

What other rewards can I use in reward-based training?

  • Play
  • Our attention
  • Being given another type of life reward –  e.g. running loose in the park for dogs, free flying for some birds..

Remember that a reward has to be something that an animal values. For example, there are some dogs who are not motivated by food. A common breed that springs to mind is the Border Collie. Mine used to love chasing and retrieving a ball and, for him, this was a much better incentive than food.

Using food as a reward when we are teaching a new behaviour is called operant conditioning. The reward is quickly paired with the animal’s correct response. This helps them learn that the food comes when they perform a particular behaviour. Consequently they are more likely to repeat the behaviour again and so learning is achieved.

Food can also be used to change how an animal is feeling about something. This is an example of classical conditioning.  You might use this type of learning if an animal is frightened of thunder. To help change the emotional response, we can present a very tasty treat and pair it with a recording of thunder at a very low volume, so as not to cause any fear.  Gradually, over time, the animal will anticipate food and good things when it hears the sound of thunder. In this case, unlike operant conditioning, the animal hasn’t had to perform a task – it’s the thunder that predicts the food. This type of learning is used in a process called desensitisation and counterconditioning. something commonly used in behaviour treatment programmes.

So what else do we need to know about using food rewards?

  • Avoid using the food that your pet gets for their daily meal. It’s less of a treat if they get it all the time!
  • Select the most tasty and highly valued food you can. Cheese, liver and chicken tend to be up there with the doggy favourites but know your pet’s preferences.
  • Have at least a couple of different types of treat available ranging from favoured to highly favoured. That means that you can use a ‘jackpot’ for a particularly well executed response.
  • Avoid using food and training just after feeding time.  Make sure you use small pieces (no bigger than the size of your little finger-nail for small pets). If your pet is full they will be less motivated to work.
  • Reduce your pet’s daily ration to prevent obesity.
  • You can use a clicker to mark a behaviour. This allows you some time to get the treat delivered.
  • Once an animal learns a behaviour and is responding consistently, it is possible to phase out the treats, only giving them intermittently.

The main thing about using rewards for training is about enjoyment. If your pet enjoys the training process then they will learn more rapidly. But more importantly they will be happier engaging with us and that should be something we all want to achieve!

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how animals learn, get in touch with me to find out about some of the courses and seminars that I run throughout the year.

If you would like to take the DIY route and make your own homemade treats, here are some recipes for dogs and cats that you might like to try out kindly provided by www.sainsburysbank.co.uk/moneymatters

NB Do make sure that the peanut butter is free from the artificial sweetener, Xylitol as it is toxic to dogs!


Sainsbury’s Bank Pamper Your Pet

Sainsbury’s Bank Pamper Your Pet

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