Dog Training Rewards: Praise, Petting, and Beyond

In the third lesson of our Rewards series discover tips for effective petting, the impact of voice and tone, where to pet your dog, and the power of combining various types of rewards for maximum training success. While some dogs may naturally respond well to praise & petting, many dogs have a preference for food or toys as rewards.

Petting a dog on top of the head

This is the third video in our Canine Rewards series. In this lesson, we'll dive into techniques for effective petting, the impact of voice and tone, where to pet your dog, and the power of combining various types of rewards for maximum training success.

Many people want dogs to work for praise and petting primarily. While some dogs fall in this category, many dogs will prefer food or toys. Petting and praise do not allow us to reward as precisely as we can with food or toys. While we will be building up options for praise and petting as rewards, keep in mind that most working dogs (detection, search and rescue, etc.) will continue to be rewarded with toys/food throughout their careers to maintain and strengthen behaviors.

How to pet your dog

The type of touch can have a significant impact on a dog’s response. Short, rapid touches will usually excite dogs. This might be rapid pats, pushing a dog away, or a scrubbing motion. Long, slow touch will usually promote calmer behaviors. Some dogs prefer a very light touch. Some dogs will prefer long, slow petting with pressure.

Where you pet your dog

Dogs are individuals and will have different preferences. This also may change throughout your dog’s life and can differ depending on whether a person is a family member or a stranger.

Petting along the length of the body can be helpful in either calm or exciting situations. Vary the length and speed of your petting to get different responses.

Most dogs don’t like petting on top of the head. This can be especially hard for those with poodles or doodles because the top knots can look very inviting to pet! Also, many dogs will duck away if we reach over their heads. This doesn’t mean anything bad has happened previously. It can be a reflexive response to an object coming from above.

Scratching under the ears or at the side of the neck is usually preferred by most dogs. You can experiment to see what your dog likes best.

The end of a dog’s back and near the tail is a location where some dogs really like scratching. It usually creates a more silly response from dogs rather than calm behavior.

Voice and Tone

Your body language and tone of voice will also affect your dog’s response. For example, moving fast and quickly or talking fast with a high pitch will excite many dogs. On the other hand, slow, quiet talking will be more beneficial for situations where we want calm behaviors.

Some dogs already know words that excite them - avoid those words if you want your dog to be calm in a specific situation.

Remember this when you’re letting your dog interact with strangers or friends. For example, if you are working on calm greetings, but your best friend talks with a high pitch and moves quickly, you may want to wait until your dog is more advanced before letting him interact with this friend.

Combining Reward Types

We aren’t typically restricted to just one category of rewards! Instead, try different combinations in different situations to learn more about what your dog enjoys and how to best use your reward and combination options for maximum results.

Keep in mind that your dog gets to choose what is rewarding. While we might want a dog to love petting and praise, he might prefer a treat quietly dropped or a gentle scratch on the ears. We might want him to love chicken treats, but he might like dry biscuit treats instead. Every dog is different, and we have to be ready to adjust as needed for your dog.

Next Steps

Please reach out for help with reward games and using these to build skills like stay, come when called, or focus. We know that very excitable or nervous dogs may need additional modifications for success. We can make a plan that’s appropriate for your dog.

Need a refresher? Check out Choosing the Best Treats for Training or Beyond the Treat: Teaching Dogs to Work Without Food Present