How Dogs Learn - Kerri Bee looks at reward based training.



Reward based dog training is based on the simple truth that if behaviour is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. This is true of humans as much as dogs, after all, how many people would go to work if they didn’t earn any money?

If you think of all the reasons why you as a human do anything you should find that it all comes down to motivation. Motivation however, can be created by the threat of something unpleasant as well as the promise of something pleasant. This applies to so many things in life, for example we generally clean our homes to be rewarded by living in a pleasant environment but there is also the threat that if we don’t, germs will take over. It’s how we feel about these motivating factors that affects our relationships.

How does this affect dogs? Well, dogs don’t really do things just to please us and even dogs that appear to do that will be motivated by other factors – you just have to look more closely. The key is how we motivate them which determines how our dogs (and cats and children and......) feel about us.

Positive reward based training develops trust and loyalty between dogs and people. It also helps develop your dog’s personality rather than suppress it like traditional methods. Dogs really enjoy this kind of training because it taps into their natural love of learning and it stimulates their brains, making for happier, well behaved pets and therefore owners.

This kind of training is fun, positive and quick because dogs and people learn best when they are relaxed and happy. You can learn how to teach your dog anything without even raising your voice. In fact shouting or physical force of any kind are strictly prohibited in class, because such punishment teaches nothing and is therefore unkind and since there are positive ways to teach, there is simply no need.
Dogs learn by simple association. If they sit and receive a food treat at the same time or immediately after they are likely to be motivated to sit again. Dogs cannot understand our language without help, so in order to learn a word for an action they must hear the word a number of times at the same time as performing the action, before being able to perform the action when asked. One way to train dogs (and nearly all animals) is with clicker training.


Using Rewards in Training


The kind of rewards, the variety, and how they are used in reward based puppy and dog training is essential to success – rewards are wages!

Most dogs are motivated by food and toys to different degrees. With toys, it is the games that people play with them that make them exciting or with toys such as Kongs, it is the food they are stuffed with.

We usually start with food treats to teach a dog new behaviour because most are motivated by food and small easily eaten food treats make the training process quicker and easier to understand. Toy rewards are useful at the end of sections of training and in more progressive training where the dog has built up a desire for the toy.

Food treats must come thick and fast to start with to cement the learning, and then as the training becomes more automatic the food can be gradually phased out. It is a good idea to continue to treat your dog occasionally, even when he knows the cue well. It will strengthen the bond between you in the same way that an occasional word of thanks for doing the dusting, works for you!


What treats to use


It is well worth making a list of your dog’s top ten treats, bearing in mind that your dog although strictly an omnivore (eats anything!), he or she is mainly a carnivore and so meat will probably forms at least six of her top ten. Her daily kibble may or may not be in that top ten.

Liver cake is loved by about 99% of dogs I meet. It’s cheap and easy to make, but quite yucky, so I often sell some in class. To make it, liquidise a packet of liver, add an egg (optional) and enough wholemeal flour to make it the consistency of cake mixture. Pour into a tin lined with foil and greased and bake until it’s firm. When cool cut into squares and freeze – you can defrost as much as you need.

Tuna and other fish can be made into cake as above if your dog likes it as many do.

Cheese good for vegetarians, dogs love it, keeps well, easy to use – try cheap mild cheddar. Use in moderation with young puppies and don’t over-rely on it for any dog. Cheese is so easy to use it can get boring and too much may upset tummies - variation is the key.

Chicken - a top favourite. Save scraps from your meals, cut them small and freeze in pots. Cook cheap portions in stock, so it doesn’t shrink as much.

Beef doesn’t have to be expensive. Again, bits from your own meals, cooked or raw cheap mince and sandwich meat. You could try whizzing up cheap mince, an egg and flour and baking – this makes it go a lot further.

Sausage is a big favourite but they are usually full of salt so use your dog’s fondness for them sparingly by adding one or two tiny bits to each handful of treats – it will add incentive. Try Tesco smokey bacon cocktail sausages!

Sandwich meat can be really convenient as it is already sliced. Dogs like garlic sausage, chicken roll, all that kind of thing.

Commercial Treats are liked by many dogs but usually come nearer the bottom of their Top Ten, making them useful for ‘ok’ responses whilst reserving the top treats for new work and ‘wow’ responses. Choose ones that list meat as the first ingredient and look out for added salt, sugar and artificial ingredients, especially colours.


Using Toys

Try to develop a habit of playing tuggy or retrieve or chase after each segment of training. It reinforces the training more and allows your dog a quick break before re-starting training.


dog with toy

Kerri Bee FdSc CBT,

Kerri BeeKerri holds a Foundation Degree in Canine Behaviour and Training from the University of Hull and she has also been a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK. Kerri is also a behaviour advisor for SPPOT (Supporting People & Pets through Opportunity & Training) is an innovative Community Interest Company which interests and inspires people who encounter it, whether they are the people for whom the organisation was set up, people who love dogs or fellow professionals working in either of SPPOT’s dual spheres. Visit her at

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