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When should I stop rewarding my dog?

22/09/2021 - Training

One of the most commonly asked questions I hear from dog owners is about what to do when training stops.
They ask “when should I stop treating or rewarding my dog?” Often this comes from a worry about them staying healthy if they’ve had high value treats to help them learn as a puppy. It also implies that people expect to reach a point where they no longer need to reward their dog.

Training is for life, not just for puppies

Regular followers will know this mantra well: training never stops. You and your dog will continually experience new things, find situations you’ve not come across before, and your dog will change in mood and temperament as it moves through different stages of maturity. Even the basics need revisiting – it’s important to remind your dog of the expectations you’ve set.
What can change, though, is how you reward your dog. As humans, we automatically link reward with food but, although dogs love a treat or two, they are equally happy to get your attention and approval and, once they’re a little older, this can easily replace food-related treats.
The most important thing is that you have a way of telling your four-legged friend that he or she has made a good choice. You wouldn’t stop saying please or thank you, would you? Or stop taking your salary because you’ve been doing the same job for a few years? No, so don’t take this important element out of your dog’s life either.

Rates of reinforcement

What you can tweak and change is the frequency with which you treat or reward.
An older dog should need less reinforcement than an easily distracted puppy who is just getting to grips with lots of new cues and expectations. This reinforcement can be given through attention, toys, cuddles, access to something they love. All these things will remind your dog of the desired behaviour and none of them present an issue with health or over-eating.
It's also good to introduce these alternatives because variety helps prevent the value of a reward from reducing. As well as varying what you give them, you can reduce the rate of treating by, for example, not rewarding every ‘sit’ once your dog has nailed this command, but perhaps rewarding a really good ‘sit’ – one that happened even though there was a distraction or something really exciting in the room with them.

Reward is in the eye of the beholder

Believe it or not (and Labrador owners might find this particularly hard to get their heads around) not all dogs are foodies. Rewards should be tailored to what the dog responds to and if this is a toy rather than food, don’t consider that any less of a ‘treat’. You can use different rewards for different things – fit them to the behaviour and how easy or difficult you know that to be for your dog. But never stop rewarding. It’s what makes dogs tick – your relationship with your dog always needs nurturing and enriching.
In the early days it may seem like your dog is constantly rewarded but over time it will reduce as we can begin to expect more behaviour per reward. A great example is lead work, initially you might reward every single step with a treat to keep your dog wanting to stay by your side but as they grow you can reduce the rewards to every few steps, then every few metres until eventually your dog is happy to walk with you with no pulling for the duration of your walk.

So, in answer to the original question, we should never stop rewarding our dogs.

Find out more about what treats to use and how to use food rewards wisely