Dog training can be frustrating, especially when you have a dog who isn’t incredibly treat-motivated! Trainers tell you to use their dinner as training rewards, but your picky eater just isn’t interested enough. We’re here to tell you about the hierarchy of rewards, how to know when to use them, and some of our favorites!
Training rewards fall into three general categories: low value, medium value, and high value. You’ll also hear people use the term “jackpot” which falls at the highest end of high-value.
Obviously, no taste buds are the same, and what works for one dog may not work for another. It’s your job to determine what your dog thinks of various rewards! You’ll want to find what your dog works hardest for, what makes them most enthused, and what they turn their nose up to.
For instance, my dog, Aretwo, won’t touch his own kibble as a reward. Meals only. His low value rewards are things like the tiny Train Me! beef flavored treats. He’ll do his tricks, but isn’t super happy about it. Medium rewards for him are things like Blue Buffalo Health Bars or Nutrisource salmon treats. He offers behaviors more readily, but isn’t really willing to learn new things for them. High value rewards for him are HOLI freeze-dried rabbit and turkey, and admittedly the fast-food-type Canine Carry Outs that he gets only from the woman at the wine store! He would sacrifice me for those.
High value for him is something he does quick and hoppy “spins” for and what will keep him most occupied with a puzzle toy. A jackpot for Aretwo is cheese…his one true love.
So what does this mean?
You’ll want to use your low value rewards for things that your dog already does well and happily. Like sit, or paw. These can include your dog’s kibble as well. Use it for an enrichment puzzle or bring on your walks to reinforce good behaviors your dog already exhibits! Think things like biscuits and cookies. Low value doesn’t have to mean low quality. It just means your dog doesn’t dig it as much as a slice of cheese. Kibbles are a great use of low value rewards. Dogs have an instinct to work for their food, and just dumping a cup in their bowl is underutilizing their desire to use their other senses! Using your dog’s mealtime as enrichment or training helps to keep their instinct to work strong, and lessens the potential for them to become picky with food, to make sure they always have a drive to eat.
Medium value treats are those you’ll use for teaching. You might bring them on your walks and reward them for waiting at the crosswalk when they normally bolt, or for not jumping on a person when they say hello. Think of these as your go-to treats for training sessions. I find medium value treats are usually the soft, chewy treats that smell a little stronger than the hard baked biscuits.
High value rewards are for your more difficult behaviors. Heeling, ignoring other dogs, reactivity; all of these are something you’ll want to use your high value treats for. Usually you’ll be using your high values for luring behaviors. You’ll want something that is more tempting than the dog walking by, or the chicken bone on the ground. I find most often these include freeze-dried or single-ingredient treats like HOLI’s freeze dried lamb or rabbit. They smell strong, break easily, and are potentially different from the proteins they normally eat. High value treats should be used sparingly, not for everyday behaviors! You want them to maintain their value so that they stay novel to your dog.
Jackpot rewards are similar to high value, but I like to put them in their own category. These are things you want to use only when your dog completes a task that is super super important or difficult. I use jackpots for come when called off-leash in Central Park, leaving the dog run for a dog that likes to play keep away, or letting go of a piece of pizza they stole. Jackpots should be amazing and something they almost never get, so that it becomes way more exciting to perform their behaviors for you than to do almost anything else. My usual jackpot go-tos are deli meats, cheese, hot dogs, or something like lamb hearts or beef lung. You’ll want to keep these on you in case of emergency!
As said before, all dogs are different, and what works for one may not work for another. Try different treats and flavors out and see what works best! Regardless of where different treats rank for your pup, keep a rotating list of flavors, and make your feeding time fun!
What is your dog’s jackpot treat? Let us know in the comments below.