Is a treat just a treat, or do dogs have preferences for the type of reward they earn for good behavior? What about giving more treats for being exceptionally well-behaved? Keeping dogs motivated to learn has a lot to do with reinforcer effectiveness – or the extent to which a certain reward entices your dog to participate in training. Some dogs are motivated by affection or playtime alone, while others are highly food motivated. For food motivated dogs, understanding how the type of treat and quantity of treats effects the speed of learning can be very helpful to trainers and dog parents!
Researchers from the University of Lincoln recruited 19 dogs from local families to participate in their study investigating what motivates dogs more – treat quality or treat quantity. The dogs were trained to travel across a room to earn food, then tested for food preference to ensure that the dogs in their study preferred a small sausage over a piece of dry food. Once trained, the dogs were either given a quality or quantity test. The researchers considered the speed of travel as a measure of motivation, with faster paces indicating a higher preference. Their results indicated that dogs moved significantly faster when their anticipated reward was a sausage rather than a piece of dry food. Alternatively, the quantity of a lesser quality reward did not significantly change how quickly dogs ran for the reward. When offered 1 piece of dry food vs 5 pieces of dry food, dogs traveled at around the same speed, indicating a similar level of motivation.
How can we apply this to dog training and everyday interactions with your dog? If your dog is food motivated, get to know their preferences, and be sure to have the treats they really love around the house. For households with many dogs, this might mean different treats for each dog based on individual differences. Using these high-quality, preferred treats will help keep your dog motivated to learn and on their best behavior!
Thanks to @barkymarksdogtraining for letting us share their photo. Follow them on Instagram!
Source: Riemer, S., Ellis, S. L. H., Thompson, H., Burman, O. H. P. (2018). Reinforcer effectiveness in dogs – The influence of quantity and quality. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 206,87-93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.05.016