What can I use besides food as a training reward?
The answer to this question is both easy and complicated–it really depends on your dog. An appropriate training reward is anything that your dog will work for in order to gain access to it, such as a chew toy, getting to go for a walk, petting, playing with another dog, playing fetch, or even just praise. (Similarly, if you have a dog that does not enjoy petting or playing fetch, these are not appropriate rewards.)
How do you know how much your dog values a particular reward? Pay attention to whether she maintains interest in the reward while you’re asking her to perform a particular behavior. If she’s distracted or runs away, something else in the environment has proven more valuable. When that’s the case, simply up the ante of the reward you’re offering.
For example, say you ask your dog to sit before opening the front door for a walk. Instead of sitting, however, she goes off to play with a tennis ball. This tells you that the front door is not a valuable enough reward. Reduce distractions in the environment by putting tennis balls in another room; you’ll then increase the likelihood that your dog will be motivated to do what you want her to do. If this doesn’t work, you may need to resort to an even more valuable reward, such as food.
The more you incorporate reward-based training into your daily routine–and the fewer rewards your dog gets for “free”–the more motivated she’ll be to listen to you over the long term. And ultimately that means a better relationship between you and your dog.