Food vs Toy Rewards
So you've seen my video on Tug Toy Training with Misia, (or are about to watch it at the end of this blog post) and you're probably wondering - but why not just give your dog a treat?
Well don't get me wrong, we use a lot of food in our training. But for the purpose of training activities that require prolonged effort and performance, (like Search and Rescue work) toys do a better job of tapping into the reward centres of the brain and maintaining work ethic in high drive dogs. This is because it emulates and taps into a drive to hunt for, chase and kill prey. Not all dogs are high drive, or inclined to play. Some dogs just prefer food.
Food as a Reward
Well food is an AMAZING reinforcer. This is partly because food is a primary reinforcer; no association or learning is required for a dog to know that food is good. One study, which reviewed the efficacy of positive training methods found:
"On average the dogs who were rewarded with food required around only 5 blocks of training to achieve the required 10 sit-stays in a row. This is compared to the 13 blocks required for the dogs that were stroked or petted as a reward or the 12 blocks required for the dogs who received the verbal praise."
Food is also a quick and efficient way to reward your dog - behaviours can be set up and rewarded in rapid succession. This has the benefit of decreasing the necessary duration of training sessions for a dog to learn something - making it a great reward for for obedience work and trick training.
For dogs who aren't overly fussy, food rewards can also be scaled. Meaning, you can use a bit of kibble to good effect, and you can also use a piece of stinky cheese. However, it's likely the stinky cheese has more value for the dog, due to the smell and taste so the dog wants it more - this is a "high value" treat. This means you can provide more motivation for the dog when increasing your criteria in training or teaching your dog something particularly difficult.
Toys as a Reward
Toy training on the other hand, requires some training in itself. Dogs need to be taught the rules of play and expectations. Handlers also need to be prepared to carry a chunky toy around. So toys have their place in training that is more active - such as Search and Rescue and Agility.
A practical reason for this is that feeding dogs during periods of physical exertion or exercise isn't best practice and can increase the likelihood of bloat (a serious, life threatening condition).
Toy rewards are also better for training exercises that are longer in duration, as dogs that are inclined to favour a toy reward are usually acting on prey drive, a strong biological drive inherited from their ancestors. In wild dogs and wolves, the "hunt" can take hours, so dogs that tap into this drive will have a higher frustration tolerance and improved work ethic over a longer period of time. The reward therefore needs to be BIG and fun, so whether it is throwing the ball or a vigorous tug session it is a lot more time consuming than providing a quick treat. Vigorous toy rewards (which emulates catching prey) also require handler input, so your dog learns that you are fun and engaging with you = reward centre overload. This helps to improve the relationship between dog and handler, in turn motivating them to be more attentive toward the handler.
So which is the BEST?
Well that depends - are you after a reward that increases work ethic and improves the canine-handler relationship for a certain purpose? Or are you trying to teach your dog lots of things and after a quick and easy reward that can be easily scaled up or down?
Also - don't forget that the reward has to be rewarding for the subject. If you have a fussy dog who will only eat roast chicken with a side of gravy you aren't likely to see the benefits of food reward (like efficiency). Or, if you have a dog that will bring a ball for you to throw it, then look at you and walk the other way when you do - they probably don't find the chase all that rewarding.
To find out which your dog prefers, simply give them the option. You will quickly see which they prefer - they will make an obvious choice. This is key to a successful reward, regardless of whether it is food or a toy, it has to be what THEY want and what THEY find rewarding.
If you would like the benefits of toy play however think your dog isn't that interested, there are toys to help increase the toy drive such as tugs that can be stuffed with food. Or maybe you simply haven't come across your dogs preferred toy? I wouldn't have known that Misia thinks socks are the best thing EVER, had I not given her the freedom of choice to select what she really wanted from a variety of 20 + toys laid out on the ground in front of her.
What about me?
Dogs like Misia, high drive dogs that have strong instincts and are willing to work to fulfil those biological needs and drives will work to both. In my experience however, prey drive is stronger than desire for food. Misia will do a lot for food, and in rapid succession but if I don't make it easily accessible (reward frequently) she will lose interest and will either find her own food or something more fun to do. Entice her with the thought of a toy reward and she will work until exhaustion, even with no toy (or sock) in sight.
To see how I utilise toys in training with Misia in her Search and Rescue work, watch this video (below). In it, I am working on improving the efficacy of our tug play and provides a prime example of how you need to teach rules and expectations for toy play rewards to be effective for both dog and handler.
Tug Toy Training with Misia:
Tug toy I'm using in the video: https://maasiandmisia.com.au/products/loopy-fleece-tug