What type of reward to use with clicker or marker training?

The type of reward to use is an important part of any reward-based training method, including clicker training or marker training. Normally, at least in the beginning, we use food rewards; the reason for this is because food is motivating as well as rewarding for dogs. On top of that, it also allows us to do a lot of repetitions in a short timeframe and to keep a higher rate of reinforcement. Food rewards can be separated into two groups;

  • High value rewards
  • Low value rewards
High value rewards

High value food rewards are considered to be such things as, meat, cheese, dog food sausages, etc. Normally, high value treats are soft products, although this depends on your dog. Every dog has a different taste and what some dogs may find extremely motivating, another may not. You may have to change a few different types of reward treats in order to find what your dog prefers the most.

Low value rewards

Low value treats on the other hand are such things as dog food kibbles and dry treats, in most cases. For example, if you are using dry dog food as a type of reward, your dog will probably not find it so exciting since that is part of his daily meal. Using low value treats may significantly decrease your dog’s motivation and overall performance up to the point that the dog stops performing all together since the reward is not motivating enough.

I wouldn’t recommend using low value treats for your type of reward at the beginning of clicker training (or marker training) especially not while you are still shaping your dog’s emotional response towards obedience exercises and work in general.

Normally most dog trainers and owners that use clicker or marker training start with food and eventually switch to a different type of reward, usually to a toy reward, if the dog has enough drive for toys. Dogs that have a high toy drive in most cases prefer a toy over food.

Keep in mind that it also depends what you are doing with your dog. For example: a dog that has already established trained behaviors can be switched to a toy or other type of reward system. However, the type of reward depends also on the intention of the training; if we are shaping a new behavior, by giving toys or so called “life rewards” to our dog, this may decrease the rate of reinforcement or serve as too much of a distraction to the dog.

Since there are a few general rules about how to use toys as a type of reward and which type of toys to use, etc. I have created a separate page on the website to help you through the principles of using a toy reward for dogs; for more details click here.

TIP: Avoid using treats that crumble on the floor, otherwise your dog will spend more time disengaged or distracted from you and checking to see if either of you have dropped any crumbs, than actually working with you each time you reward him.

What size of reward to use?

The size of the reward varies accordingly to the size of the dog. The rule of thumb is for the size of the reward to not be too small that the dog simply doesn’t feel or notice it (or if he seems confused about whether or not anything at all has actually been delivered to him); it also cannot be too big, because if the treat is too big the dog will spend his time chewing it which will delay other exercises, and the dog will learn to disengage from us while eating, and will quickly get full and won’t be as motivated to work.

The optimal size should be enough that a dog can chew it one or two times and the piece of food is gone, this way he will stay actively participating with you in order to get more.

How to properly deliver the treat?

There are a few important concepts when we are talking about delivering the treat:

  • How to physically hold the treat in your hand
  • How to deliver the reward
  • Proper positioning of the treat in regards to the dog’s position
How to properly hold the treat

The proper way to hold a treat is in your palm held down with your thumb. There are two reasons for this; first of all, you are avoiding getting inadvertently bitten by the highly motivated dog, which is more likely to occur if you are holding the food with the tips of your fingers, and the second reason is that you can form a small cup with your palm allowing your dog’s snout to push inside for the treat, even though he can’t actually reach the treat until you let it go with your thumb.

How to deliver a reward

This is useful in clicker training (or marker training) if you are luring your dog into positions or if you want to manipulate his body posture. This is also useful as a tactic to hold his attentiveness if you are counter-conditioning certain situations which I will describe in detail on the page about counter-conditioning.

The second part of delivering the reward is the actual way of delivering it. There are three ways, delivering it right up and into the dog’s mouth (as you would if you were rewarding a “good” guiding marker, and you wanted your dog to remain in the position), or you can create a little energy/excitement burst and deliver the reward while moving about with your dog engaged (like after you have released the dog from a series of commands, for example), or tactically placing food in certain spots (or delivering it in certain spots) as a part of free shaping to help your dog clue in and advance faster.

Depending on the type of reward, one of the ways to deliver it, that is still used in many dog sports, especially Schutzhund, is that the toy reward is delivered in such a way that the dog has to “catch it” in the air, simulating prey. This is a very important part of delivery since it builds satisfaction and motivation for the dog.

Many people that use clicker training or marker training miss this point, and then deliver the food right to the dog’s mouth every time. This may become boring or even frustrating for a dog if our training wasn’t properly planned and the dog is having issues figuring out what he is supposed to do. Because of this, the whole concept may end up being about the treats themselves, which is wrong, the reward should be about the treat and the interaction with the handler; or it may become too frustrating and the dog may start avoiding future work.

Think about it for a moment from a human perspective. Imagine that you spend your whole day painting the house, and then your spouse comes home, looks at the walls and with the same dull expression on their face as in their voice, they say “great, dear”. How would you feel? Now, if your spouse comes home excited and exclaims, “Wow, this is so awesome, it looks great!” also showing that excitement through their body language, of course you will feel proud and excited. The same goes for our dogs.

Regardless of the type of reward, make it into a mini-event every time you can when delivering it, after all; that is why it is called a “reward”.

As mentioned above, the only time that you would deliver the treat right to your dog’s mouth in clicker training (or marker training) is when he is in a position that you don’t want him to break, like a long sit or down, or in some exercises, where the treat has to be delivered in such a fashion to help the dog’s advancement. In these cases, you will pair the reward delivery with the guiding marker (“good” or whatever word you are using) and avoid excitement, in order to encourage your dog to stay on track.

There is another time in which you would use this delivery method, and that is while desensitizing and counter-conditioning. During this process, you want your dog to stay calmer and you don’t want the reward to become too disturbing for the exercise, but again, that is different than with clicker training for basic obedience, which is what we are discussing here.

Positioning the treat matters

The last important segment with regards to the type of reward is the positioning of its delivery. In many cases the positioning of the reward will help your dog clue into the final goal much faster, or in some cases, it will help keep his posture in a certain position.

For example, if you are training the “front” command, where your dog comes and sits in front of you, and you always reward him with your right hand slightly to the right of his head, your dog will start sitting crooked towards your right hand side. No matter how much you are clicking at the right moment with the correct timing. The presentation of a treat will drive the dog’s position, not the clicker. In order to avoid these “conflicting” situations you should:

  • Always make a habit of rewarding your dog with either hand, interchangeably, so that your dog knows that the reward is not always coming from the same side. In the case of the “front” exercise you should reward your dog right above his head to keep his posture straight. Presentation of the reward (as much as possible) should always be done in a way that is reinforcing or stabilizing certain behaviors/postures.

TIP: Always keep in mind that the dog is doing what we ask him to do because of the reward, at least in the beginning of clicker training (or marker training), and all animals tend to follow the source of the treat, which will be your hand, your bait pouch, pocket, etc. even if that behavior itself won’t bring any reward. If you are using a bait pouch and it distracts your dog too much, place it at your back or your side. Or switch the treats over to your pockets instead.

Once your dog has a clear picture that he will receive a reward as a result of successfully performing an exercise and being given the release marker or click, combined with the right placement of the reward, this type of unwanted behavior will phase itself out. Using the right type of reward for your dog will help him stay motivated to work.

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