What is the difference between a rewards, treat and reinforcer

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Recinforce, Reward, Treat what does it all mean? 


If you are new to training or an old pro these words will be ones you have probably heard bandied about, but what do they mean and does it really matter?

They are all used when training animals. So we thought we would give you a quick rundown of what they mean and whether you feel at the end, it matters to you.

When you first begin to train your dog, and you find a fabulous trainer who uses Kind, Ethical and Science-Based methods you are probably jumping for joy in the sea of trainers who choose to use techniques to the contrary. However, within your first lesson, you are likely to be told to ‘reinforce’ your dog and then handed some pieces of food. Some dry, some moist and in our classes case even salmon paste filled toys. But is this reinforcing, is it bribing, it is rewarding undesired behaviour and if so what it is strengthening?

“A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behaviour or response will occur.”

Let’s break this down into the dictionary definitions.


a thing


in recognition of service, effort, or achievement.
give something to (someone) in recognition of their services, efforts, or achievements.


behave towards or deal with in a certain way.

give medical care or attention to; try to heal or cure.

an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.


an individual or thing that enforces
2. psychology
a stimulus, such as a reward, that increases the chance of producing a desired response by being applied after the desired response

Ok, so even within their definitions reward is used within the definition of the reinforcer, so where does this leave us.

When training using positive reinforcement it is classified under operant conditioning, there are 4 quadrants, and the best way to understand them is to see them as adding or subtracting to increase or decrease behaviour.

Positive Reinforcement

Adding something to increase the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated

When the dog comes back when recalled they are given a toy, playing a game or given food that THEY like. The dogs show they find it reinforcing by repeating the behaviour.



Negative Reinforcement

Taking something away to increase the likelihood of the desired behaviour being repeated

The dog is shocked/vibrations given and it is left on until the dog returns to the handler. Increasing the likelihood of the dog returning when called to avoid the shocks continuing. The negative reinforcer, in this case, the shocks, are taken away once the dog performs the behaviour wanted.


Positive Punishment

Adding something to decrease the likelihood of the unwanted behaviour being repeated

When the dog doesn’t come back when called shouting loud enough and aggressively enough to stop the dog in its tracks, sometimes the use of a bottle filled with stones is also used to make a very loud noise to shock a dog into stopping. Adding a punisher to scare the dog. Decreasing the likelihood of the dog ignoring the recall in order to avoid being shouted at or having a big noise go off again. Punishment stops the behaviour.


Negative Punishment

Taking something away to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated

When the dog doesn’t come back when called put it back on lead taking away its freedom. This decreases the likelihood that the dog will ignore the recall, in order to avoid being put on a lead. This relies on the dog understanding that ignoring the recall is the reason it is being put on lead and its valuable freedom is taken away.



 Many people choose to use positive reinforcement deliberately to train and maintain a specific behaviour. A dog trainer, for example, might reward a dog with a piece of food every time the animal shakes the trainer’s hand, however, you will only know the dog sees this as reinforcing if the behaviour is strengthened and offered more readily each time. What one learner (dog) finds rewarding may not be what another does. This is why it is so important to take the time to figure out what your dog loves, likes and tolerates. 

Different Types of Positive Reinforcers

Many different types of reinforcers can be used to increase behaviours, but it is important to note that the kind of reinforcer used depends on upon the individual and the situation. While gold stars and stickers might be beneficial reinforcement for a young child, they are not going to necessarily be as reinforcing on a secondary school or college pupil. This must be remembered when working with our individual dogs too. What one dog loves may not be what the other does too. Furthermore what your dog adores inside at home may have no value when outside too. 

Have some fun figuring out what your dog loves, if you aim to use it within training plan your training session with what you are going to train, why, how and which type of reinforcer, where will you place it to encourage repetition of the behaviour too. Do you give ‘treats’ after training sessions, things like toys or chews? Make your own mind up about what is reinforcing and what is rewarding and the language that you are happy to use but above all else if you aren’t having fun, stop, re-group and plan a different session making it easier for both of you to be successful. Sarah Fisher said to me last year ‘Less is more and a special dog doesn’t always mean easy.’ This has changed the way I work and I hope it helps you too. 

Eryn Martyn-Godfrey

"I believe in Magic AND Science, so I make state-of-the-art Training Techniques SUPER accessible, to help pet guardians Hocus-Pocus their Crazy Dogs into Calm Canines." Eryn has been a Dog Behaviourist & Training Instructor since 2007, she is based in South East London UK.


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