The Importance Of Knowing Your Dog’s Currency

Imagine if you were given a bonus at work whenever you did your job well. I’m sure most of you would say that that would definitely give you extra incentive to always try your best. Our dogs have their own version of this. There are two primary types of currency or “money” for your dog: really good treats and, for many dogs, extra playtime. For something to qualify as amazing currency, your dog must absolutely love it, not just like it. Keep in mind that affection doesn’t count as currency—our dogs should never be required to earn this, so dish out the love for free, as much as you’d like.

For treats during primary training sessions, again, use tiny pieces of real chicken or other meat. The reward should be the size of a grain of rice for small dogs, and no larger than a pea for medium to large dogs. Trust me, it’s the quality of the treat, not the quantity, that counts, because you want to have the option of rewarding over and over again without filling your dog up. Think of this tiny piece of meat as the equivalent of a $1 bill to your dog. What about commercial dog treats? They have their place too, and I suggest having several containers of soft dog treats throughout the house because there will be times when you need to burst into a spontaneous training session and you’ll need to have your dog’s currency handy. Think of these as equivalent to a quarter. Dog biscuits and even bits of kibble are equivalent to a penny. It’s fine to give them to your dog, but not when training. Remember, the currency you choose has to really excite your dog.

While great treats will work with most dogs, some moderate- to high-energy dogs will really excel if you reward a training success with a brief play activity, such as a five-second game of tug-of-war or one or two tosses of a ball. I stress this because it’s far too common for people to insist that their dog accept that treats be the reward, even as their dog, say, jumps on them and bites at the leash. These are sure signs that a dog is desperately trying to initiate play. If your dog is saying, “I want to do this,” then try to incorporate whatever that is into the reward. So in the case of biting on the leash during a walk, consider using a tug toy to bring the attention onto an acceptable currency instead. Also, remember to put away your dog’s favorite toys unless you are playing with them—that way your pet will be excited when you bring them out as a reward. If special toys like balls, Frisbees, and tug toys are just left out all the time, they’ll likely lose their potency.

Regardless of the reward you use—and you can certainly use both food and play if that works for your dog—always give her a lot of affection and show your appreciation. Don’t just be a robot when giving treats and engaging in playtime. Also, don’t pay lip service and get excited when your dog does something well only because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. You must be genuinely encouraging. I remember when my dad taught me how to play baseball when I was a boy. He explained the game to me and told me to keep my eye on the ball and try and hit it when it approached. When I succeeded, he didn’t simply say “good” in a monotone voice; he was so excited that he came over, hugged me, and said he was so proud. It was his sincerity and positive energy that I was encouraged by, and I know that dogs are sophisticated enough to be encouraged in the same way.

So what do you treat for? At first, find tiny reasons to reward your dog when introducing a new concept. Open up the bank account and let the money flow. Your dog doesn’t have to perfect a skill to get a treat or playtime; even if she makes the slightest move in the right direction or does what you ask for a split second, reward her so she knows she’s on the right track. These little moments give you traction as you build communication. You may find yourself rewarding your dog dozens of times a day for such small successes, and that’s fine. As I mentioned earlier, that’s why you should give a minuscule bit of a treat, nothing big. It’s her tastebuds you’re trying to please, not her stomach.

I am a huge fan of clicker training, and I encourage you to use one if you’re interested. The clicker is a small, inexpensive device available from many dog retailers; its clicking sound tells your pet, “Yes! Good dog! I like what you did! You win a prize!” after you’ve conditioned her to understand this, which can take mere seconds.

I often recommend that beginners use a clicker because it helps them get better with timing, an essential ingredient to dog training that most people are not immediately good at. When first teaching a new concept, I always suggest rewarding for every tiny bit of progress. For instance, if you ask your dog to “watch me” and she does so for even a second, it’s important to always let her know she’s on the right track. Saying “Yes, I like that, and that, and that” repeatedly can be challenging at first; you may need to do that dozens of times in one session. Sometimes our fingers are quicker than our words, and if you have a clicker in your hand to press at the moment your dog moves toward the behavior you want, you are going to be clearer and more consistent when trying to communicate what you like. Eventually, your dog will look for ways to make that clicker go off, which is exactly what you want!

Here’s how to introduce the clicker:

• Don’t start with the clicker too close to your dog; the sound makes some dogs anxious at first. It’s better to start at a distance or by muffling the sound a bit with your hand.

• Next, click the clicker a single time, wait about a second or two, and give your dog a reward. Do this for a few minutes until your dog seems accustomed to the clicking noise. Be methodical and deliberate, but don’t make any type of request with the clicker. You simply want to communicate that when the clicker makes a sound, a small, great-tasting treat will follow.

• Now start incorporating the clicker into actual training. Ask your dog to sit (I’ll explain how to teach that a little later in this chapter). The second your dog’s backside hits the ground, you click, and follow up with a reward. If you tell your dog “Watch me,” the second she makes eye contact with you, click and reward. Also, try coupling the click with the word “yes” either directly before or after the click. An awesome thing happens when you do this: your dog will learn that the click and “yes” mean the same thing.

• When teaching a new skill, click only once for each small success and reward each time.

• Eventually, you can wean off the clicker. The clicker is as temporary or as permanent as you’d like it to be.