Imagine it’s your first day at a new job. You arrive nice and early and want to make a good impression. You work diligently, and at lunch, your boss stops to check in with you. You tell them the work is going well and ask when to expect your first paycheque. 

“Oh!” They laugh.

“We don’t pay you here. You work here because you respect me, and if you do well, I’ll tell you you’ve done a good job. That should be enough, right?” 


This situation is absurd. No one would work for free. So why do we expect this from our dogs?

A common question trainers get is something along the lines of, “When can I stop rewarding my dog?”. This question and variations of this question are all based on the same central idea. The idea is that dogs should do what we say immediately and without outside motivation. They should do it because they respect us. Because we said so.

I want to challenge to idea that dogs should do things for us solely because they respect us. Respect is a human concept, but because dogs are a part of our families, we tend to assign them human characteristics. All behaviour requires some motivation. This applies across all species. How do you feel when you think of your closest friends and relatives? What do you get out of those relationships that make them special? Surely your friends aren’t supplying you with treats for certain behaviours (or maybe they are, we don’t judge!). But you get a different kind of reward, whether social bonding, mutual favours, emotional support, or participating in shared hobbies together. These relationships are built on mutual reinforcement; the same goes for our dogs.

Let’s say you have a new friend with whom you get along well. You enjoy their company and have fun spending time with them. Everything seems fine until a few months in, and your friend stops returning favours. They start to expect things from you. Always be free to spend time together when they turn down your invites. To help them move into their new apartment when they couldn’t help you with yours. Maybe they constantly expect you to be there for them and offer nothing in return when the tables are turned. Spending time with them begins to feel like a chore. Would you want to stay friends with this person? Probably not. All healthy relationships are based on give and take. When the balance is skewed too heavily one way, relationships deteriorate.

Every time we choose to reward (or pay) our dogs, we build the behaviour we are paying for and our relationship with them. This does not mean our dogs only love us for our food and toys. It just means that those rewards you give go into providing the sense of trust and love we value with our dogs. Here’s a human example: One of the ways my mother shows her love is by cooking for me. I truly value and appreciate the effort she puts into it, and I love it when I come home from a long day to a meal. Does this mean that my mother is somehow bribing me into loving her by providing me with something I enjoy? Of course not. But by purposely providing something I like, it goes to strengthen our relationship.

Something I think is important to consider is that our dogs did not choose to live with us. We are the ones who decide to bring these animals into our homes and lives. We owe it to them to teach them in a way that makes it worthwhile. I am not ashamed to say that I carry treats whenever I go out with my dogs. I reward their good behaviour, and they reward me by behaving nicely wherever we are. Do I need to have treats on me for my dogs to listen and behave well? No. But I choose to do so; it only makes our connection that much deeper.

So go ahead, reward your dog. You’ll both be better for it.