Your Reward Should be Greater Than the Distraction!!

Thanks to my favorite pet for the photo

Understanding Reinforcement is Crucial When You Are Talking About Dog Training, or Any Training.

When you work with animals you have to understand what motivates them to show simple behaviors, show complex behaviors and to change unwanted or conditioned behaviors.

It is important to understand these basic ideas so you can get the best out of your dog training program.

And, I am not talking about bribery!  If you feel like you have to bribe your dog you are misusing treats click here for that article!

Let’s Break This Down

Simple Behaviors

In dog training, simple behaviors are those that are pretty easy to get your dog to perform; sit, down, and come are all fairly simple behaviors.  I call them simple because your dog is likely to do them on his own at some point in time.

It usually does not take a very highly regarded motivator (treat or toy or something your dog naturally wants) to get your dog to show and then to shape these objectively simple behaviors.

In the beginning of dog or puppy training, I often use their dog food or pieces of their kibble to get them to show and reinforce these simple behaviors.

Complex Behaviors

This is a Complex Behavior (thanks prweb for the photo)

This is a Complex Behavior (thanks prweb for the photo)

Complex behaviors are behaviors that are more difficult for your dog to show, they may or may not be naturally occurring but they are usually not something that you would consider simple.

They may also require a behavior chain.

For instance, when I trained Service Dogs teaching a dog to turn on the lights is a complex behavior that requires a complex behavior chain (several behaviors must be put together some simple and some complex to complete the whole behavior).

It takes a higher value treat to convince a dog to perform a complex behavior.  It also may take some luring and other things.

I often used a little bit of squeeze cheese in the beginning to lure the dogs up to the light switch and then to get them to turn it on or off.  Regular dog kibble or their dog food, would not be enough to get most dogs to show this complex behavior.

Changing a Conditioned or Unwanted Behavior

Both conditioned behaviors (ones that have been rewarded either by the animal or by the environment or by you) and that have been going on for a long time, and unwanted behaviors are usually somewhat rewarding to the dog.

Barking at the mailman every day is usually a conditioned behavior because it happens every day over a long period of time, and it is rewarded (or so the dog thinks) by the dog because the mailman leaves when the dog barks (the dog of course doesn’t understand the mail man’s job and that he would leave after delivering the mail anyway).

And conditioned behaviors or habits are harder to change.

This is also usually considered an unwanted behavior.

These conditioned and unwanted behaviors are even more difficult to change and so they require a higher or better motivator.

Understanding From a Human Perspective

smokingSo let’s try to understand in layman’s terms.

If I gave you a piece of chocolate (or something you already showed me you liked) every time you sat on my sofa, I could pretty quickly shape that behavior.

You would learn that I like it when you sit on the sofa and you would be rewarded for doing so and so you would do it more often.

Now let’s say that I wanted to teach you a complex or a behavior chain (something that requires several behaviors) like making a box dinner.

I teach you each step and reward you along the way and then give you a superb reward when you finally chain the behaviors together and accomplish the final meal.

Pretty soon you would be able to make the meal alone, and the rewards could become less.

Now let’s say I want you to stop smoking.  So I offer you $100,000 to stop smoking.  Would you be able to stop?

Let’s say instead of $100,000 I offer you my praise and a back rub for quitting smoking; would that be a high enough reinforce to get you to change such a bad habit?  Probably not!


Motivators are different for each dog, just like they are different for each person.

You have to find what works for your dog and use it to your and your dog’s benefit.   One of my dogs would pretty much do anything for her kibble or food (she is on a diet) but the other dog barely eats his meals so his dog food is not likely to be a high motivator.

At my house the motivators range from lowest to highest

These are GREAT Motivators at My House!

These are GREAT Motivators at My House!

  • #25 Praise and Affection (for the most part this is not enough to truly motivate or change behavior.  We ALL want it to be but the fact of the matter is it is usually not enough!)
  • #6  Dog food
  • #5  Biscuit or dog treat (Puperoni etc.)
  • #4  Cheese
  • #3  Chicken
  • #2 Liver
  • #1  Ball or Tug

A game of ball or tug is like the $100,000 or million dollar pay out at my house.

Need help finding your dog’s motivator?  Click here

Think about it… if you got a raw steak out and dangled it in front of your dog’s face; wouldn’t he probably forget about that teasing squirrel?

How I Keep My Dog’s Motivated

I meal feed.

I do not leave food out for them all day.

If I had a buffet at my beck and call or if I had a Chef (like Oprah Winfrey) going out to dinner would not be a special event for me!

The same is true for your dog, if you give him treats all the time and  you leave his dinner out for him to eat whenever he wants, chances are food is not going to be a great motivator.

The more hungry your dog (like my dog on a diet) the more easily motivated by food, and the better the food (stinky liverwurst is often a great motivator).

I do not leave balls or tugs out for them to play with on their own.

My dogs have a toy box but they don’t have access to the toys we use as “drive builders” or the toys that we interactively play with together.

That keeps those toys special and it means that they are more motivating.

Things that we revere as special are more motivating to us.

I am a fan of the “Cheese Cake Factory” as a food motivator for me on my birthday.  But if I ate there all the time, or worked there… it wouldn’t be special or motivating!

If You Are Trying to Change an Unwanted or Bad Behavior

Find Something Your Dog Thinks is SUPER FUN!!

Find Something Your Dog Thinks is SUPER FUN!!

You are really going to need to find something that is motivating for your dog to work for, like the million dollar payout.

Remember it is your job to be more motivating than everything else that is going on around your dog and distracting him.

You may have to work at this.  I build my dog’s motivation for the ball, I don’t just toss it and hope for the best.  For more on building drive click here.

If the neighbor or the cat or the bird is more rewarding you are doing it wrong!

If you are having trouble getting your dog to listen you may have to teach him in a less distracting environment and work your way up first before you can conquer the behavior in the environment you desire.


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  1. Wilfred says:

    For me, the greatest reward that we can give to our dog is food. Well, there’s no more greater than a delicious treat of bones.


  2. Susan says:

    For our dog, Blue, throwing his red ball down the hill so he can chase it and bring it back for another chase trumps all. He’ll turn himself practically inside out to get this reward. Just showing him the ball brings about instant focus!


    Minette Reply:

    That means you are doing it RIGHT!


  3. Pam Maddock says:

    My dog loves the ball more than anything but he won’t’ give it up. He fiercely holds onto it. If I ever get the chance to throw it for him, he goes crazy but then won’t release it again. He brings it right back and sets it at my feet but if I try to pick it up, he grabs it first and shakes his head about it. He’s pretty possessive. Should I remove all balls? not play ball at all? He is rather indifferent to kibble, but likes cheese and chicken as the jackpot. He is learning other obedience commands pretty well, like eye contact, down, stay, leave it, and wait, but wont give up the ball unless I give him a treat to do so. Leave it doesn’t work with the ball – but works well for food. The ball seems to make him aggressive. I’d like to nip this in the bud and he is only 8 months old…Corgi.


    Minette Reply:

    I use two toys; read this


  4. Pamela Kutscher says:

    I have one dog (a Boston Terrier) that will eat anything that doesn’t eat him first. He seems to go equally for his food kibble or stinky cheese–he’s a gulper. On the other hand–he begs and pleads for his reward even though he has not performed the behavior–when I hold out he finally gives up and does the behavior but it’s like he always hopes to get “more for less” (my first Boston was not that way–she was all about the “game” and delighted in new “games”. She LOVED balls–any size! Of course I’d had her since a puppy whereas this one came as a mature dog, rescued as a stray).
    My other dog appears to be a Sheltie/shepherd/something mix. Also a stray–found in a shelter “night drop box”–history unknown. Very smart but something of a Diva. Food treats have to be extra special to motivate her, toys are a non-event. If she gets loose, I could hang a side of fresh beef out and she wouldn’t “bite” until she’s done with her “freedom play”. She does like to go for a ride and USUALLY I could get her to come that way –but lately even that hasn’t worked and I had to wait her out until she was finally (hours later) ready to come home.
    We go for walks and hikes as often as weather and time permits (at least a good walk almost every day).
    I really can’t seem to find a failsafe motivator for either of these dogs. Of course the Boston loves food but if I up the ante he balks. I’ve tried the toys but it seems I have to “bribe” him with food to go for the toy. When he gets “in the mood” he’ll retrieve or tug for fun but other times it’s like–“show me the money first”.
    Am I a sucker? Are they playing me? What do I do??


    Minette Reply:

    They are training you 😉 like you said he wants to do the least amount to get a treat… it must be because it has worked at some point 😉

    I am going to be posting an article about “teasing” as it involves playing with toys and building drive very soon, I think it will help 🙂


    Pamela Kutscher Reply:

    Thanks–I’ll look forward to that article!


  5. We adopted our dog from the Animal Shelter on Dec.1, 2012. We were told by out Vet that he appears to be Airdale/Terrier mix. He was about 7 mo. old then & quite a demond dog. He is very trainable in certain things, but can’t seem to break him of bitting us, counter surffing, turning over the small garbage container inside. He loves to steal things, especially paper napkins & eat them. We took him to an obediance school for 6 lessons. He sleeps inside in a big kennel. In the day time, weather permitting, he spends the day outside in the fenced in yard. He has lots of toys to play with. He weighs about 50 lbs. I have to put a jacket on to go outside to pick up the mess every day so he won’t jump on me & bite me while playing. I am 69 & my husband is 64. Anything you can tell me would be muchly appreciated. Thanking you, Shirley


    Minette Reply:

    Dogs don’t exercise themselves. So even though he is outside he is not making sure to get his heartrate over a certain level 😉

    He plays a little, lays around, sleeps and when you come in he wants to play with you.

    He needs serious exercise, some running, swimming etc. Read this

    and this


  6. First of all, thank you for your reply. I know you said to walk & run your dog to help get over some of his bad habits. We really haven’t had the time to do this & I know that is bad on our part. I forgot to mention that he has ruined some of our wooden furniture. He chews on things made of wood. I have to watch him like a hawk when he is in the house. He only has access to 3 rooms as we have doors closed to the others. I have a prescription from the Vet to give one if it is a bad day outside & he has to stay in for a while. It starts to work in about an hour or so. Also have calming tiny bones (2 at a time) to help calm him. He will sleep for a while, which is a BIG help. Thanks again for writing back to me. Shirley


  7. Jack Lucas says:

    I am Jack the Dog man Lucas. I like your list of motivator foods and what you wrote regarding not leaving the food out at all day which lessens the reward.

    I am always changing up my treats to keep our dogs guessing and finding the occasional treat they go crazy over the rest, which is good for training a behavior that you are having difficulty.

    I am always saying that our dogs are similar to us in having their own unique personalities and make their choices as we do.

    Keep up the good dog work and blogging.



  8. shirley says:

    I have a large 2 yr old male and a new puppy 5 mos. The older dog plays Alpha rough with the pup and there is a lot of tug of war, with growling. I don’t like the rough play! My 2 yr old never growled or barked before the pup came in to the family. How do I correct that behavior? I so far have used a loud noise, and a verbal “Stop< Quiet". Its not working!


    Minette Reply:

    Go back to basic training with your 2 year old so he gets used to listening again! Work every day 2-3 sessions a day to get back in the swing of things… it is also a great excuse to start the puppy with the same types of training.

    This will help when you give commands to ensure your dogs will listen.


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