Beyond Treats: Diversify Your Dog Training with Praise & Toys

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In the thick of training, it can be a real challenge when you’ve run out of treats.

My very own Sam, always eager to please, looks at me in anticipation, as if hoping I’ll pull out something tasty out of nowhere. Yet my other pooch, Charlie, seems to care more about sniffing out the treat bag than the training commands themselves.

Situations like these often leave us wondering: is there another way to reward our dogs without reaching for the treats every time?

Picture a training session where praise or a favorite toy becomes just as exciting as a treat to your dog.

smiling woman petting a brown dog outside

Why Consider Non-food Rewards?

Our dogs, just like us, have their own distinct preferences. While some dogs are driven by food, others might respond better to toys or your affection.

Identifying these preferences could broaden your training approach and make the sessions more interesting for your dog.

For instance, imagine your dog sitting eagerly, not for a treat, but for a loving pat or their beloved ball. Opting for non-food rewards not only diversifies your training methods but also allows for a more versatile reward system, making training more engaging and dynamic.

This way, you’re not just training your dog, but also building a deeper connection with them.

Praise and Affection: The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement has its roots deep in psychology and has proven effective in dog training too. It’s all about rewarding the behaviors you want to see more of.

And the reward doesn’t always have to be food.

Often, our dogs crave our attention and affection more than anything else. A heartfelt “Good boy!” coupled with a pat or a belly rub can do wonders. It’s about making them feel loved and appreciated.

Try whispering the praise, instead of shouting it – it’s a unique trick many dog trainers overlook. Dogs have a keen sense of hearing and whispering can make them feel you are sharing a special secret, making the praise more rewarding.

Toys as Rewards: Finding the Perfect Plaything

One of the most common questions I hear as a dog trainer is: “What toys should I use for training?”

The answer isn’t a one-size-fits-all but more about understanding your dog’s interests. Some dogs love a squeaky toy, while others might be more inclined towards a ball or a rope tug.

The key is to find a toy your dog loves but doesn’t get to play with all the time. This way, the toy remains special and is a high-value reward during training sessions.

Read more: Choosing the Right Training Toy for Your Dog

For instance, in a recent session with a friend’s dog Rocky, I realized Rocky wasn’t particularly food-motivated but went absolutely bonkers for a specific frisbee. We made that frisbee a special ‘training only’ toy, and Rocky’s engagement during our sessions skyrocketed.

It’s about finding and harnessing your dog’s unique drive.

Recommended Products Your Dog Will Love!

  • ChuckIt! Ultra Ball. This high-bounce, durable ball is not only great for fetch but also works as an excellent reward during training sessions. In my experience, dogs go crazy for its unpredictable bounce!
  • KONG Classic Dog Toy. This versatile toy can be filled with treats for an added incentive or used as a standalone reward. I’ve personally seen dogs of all sizes enjoying this toy.
  • Outward Hound Hide-A-Squirrel Puzzle Toy. If your dog loves a challenge, this puzzle toy can make training sessions a whole lot of fun. In my training sessions, this toy has proven to be a hit among dogs that enjoy problem-solving.
girl petting a brown dog in an alley

Mixing It Up: A Well-Rounded Training Approach

Variety is the spice of life and the key to a well-rounded training approach. It’s vital to switch between different types of rewards to keep your dog engaged and motivated.

Start a training session with praise, then switch to toys, and maybe finish with a treat for a job well done. Mixing up rewards also helps cater to your dog’s changing moods and preferences. 

Remember, training is not a rigid process but a flexible one.

In my experience as a dog trainer, one technique that often goes underutilized is the reward scaling system. Reward the routine commands with praise or petting but reserve the special rewards like their favorite toy or a high-value treat for the harder tasks or new tricks.

This technique maintains their interest in the training and also signals the value of the more difficult commands.

Quick Tips for Non-food Rewards (Do’s and Don’ts)

Here’s a short list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ to keep in mind:

  • Do experiment with different rewards to find out what your dog loves.
  • Do not use the training toys for regular playtime. Reserve them for training to keep them special.
  • Do offer verbal praise in a happy, positive tone.
  • Do not rely solely on one type of reward. Keep mixing it up to maintain your dog’s interest.

Comparing Different Rewards (Table)

Here’s a quick comparison of food treats, praise, and toys as rewards. Pick what suits your furry friend best!

Reward TypeProsCons
Food TreatsImmediate satisfaction; Works for most dogsCan lead to weight gain if not managed; May distract dog during training
Praise & AffectionStrengthens your bond; No costMay not be enough motivation for some dogs
ToysCan also provide exercise; Can make training more funFinding the right toy might take some trial and error


How can I use toys as an alternative reward in training?

Incorporate toys as rewards by making them exclusive to training sessions. For instance, if your dog loves a particular frisbee, use it only during training times to increase its value.

What are some examples of praise-based rewards?

Praise-based rewards could include saying “Good dog!” in a positive tone, giving a warm pet, a belly rub, or even a fun quick play session. Whispering praises to make your dog feel special is another excellent method.

Can I combine treat rewards with other reward systems?

Absolutely! You can use a mix of treats, praise, toys, and playtime to reward your dog during training. This variety not only makes training more fun but also more effective.

How do I know which reward system works best for my dog?

Observe your dog’s reaction to different rewards. The one that gets them most excited and attentive is likely their preferred reward. However, don’t shy away from mixing it up to maintain their interest.

  • Alex

    Alex, a passionate animal lover, has experience in training and understanding animal behavior. As a proud pet parent to two dogs and three cats, he founded to share insights from animal experts and expand his knowledge of the animal kingdom.