The Power of Social Interactions as Rewards

A trainer friend asked me, “Do you use treats when working with a dog who is worried, fearful, reactive or otherwise having trouble, or do you use social contact (voice tone, touch, etc) as the reward? I am certain that ‘it depends’ is an important part of the answer. But what do you use most frequently?”

I had to chuckle — It Depends is my bumpersticker for life. Most of all, it depends on what the dog says works for him in the moment. But how specifically to achieve that?

First, we back up a bit to what I call the First Elemental Question: “Hello?”

By beginning here, at the most elemental point of any relationship, I am asking the animal if they would be interested in a conversation. Answers range from YES! to “maybe” to NO to “go away, you’re scaring me” to “go away or I will bite you.” And all shades of grey in between.

What I do after that initial question has been asked depends very much on the answer. For this article, let’s focus on normal dogs without any intense fear, irritation, anger, frustration or the dogs who are asocial or simply disinterested in ME. Let’s assume the dog has said, “Okay – I could consider a conversation with you.”

Initially, I frequently employ a strong combo of very high value treats plus (always, forever, no exception, the real deal) authentic engagement — social interaction. This is built of eye contact, body language, voice, breathing, intensity, movement and touch. The specific combination I create is tailored to that specific dog. The dog’s behavior drives my behavior.

Regardless of the specific combo, however, one thing quickly becomes apparent to the dog: I am really present for him, really alert to him, and adjusting my behavior based on what he does. This is powerful stuff for any social animal. The combination is adjusted (as fast as I am humanly capable) to keep it effective for that dog in that moment.

Long before I work with the dog on something specific however, I’ve been assessing what he finds valuable & interesting, and observing how he utilizes space socially, what he does in response to me and my body language, eye contact, movements and voice, and his response to the treats (or toys) available. So then I have a starting point from which I move into working with him. All of that happens really fast, by the way. And keeps changing, moment to moment.

How much the social contact means of course depends on the individual dog and that relationship. Just as it wouldn’t matter much if a stranger told you how wonderful you were but did hand out $1000 bills as he told you, but coming from someone who matters a great deal to you, the interaction may be more valuable than any non-social reward.  Conversely, there are things that you would find so difficult or scary or unpleasant that even from a beloved friend, praise/encouragement alone would not be sufficient; the equation would need to be balanced out with some heavy duty reinforcements. A trusted friend who was also handing you $1000 bills could probably get you to work through even some difficult stuff.

The inherent power of social approbation/interaction is wildly underestimated by trainers, I think. Dogs tell me I’m quite right about this one. I often have the same treats as the handler, but what I offer that the dog finds so intensely valuable is the social interaction provided at a high degree of coherence & congruity. Everything in me truly says to the dog that I’m working to connect with him.

Finding the appropriate balance of social interaction plus non-social reinforcers depends very much on:

a) even being aware that such an equation exists (in my experience, a lot of trainers seem unaware of the whole concept, or have a very rudimentary grasp of the concept)

b) understanding it’s a delicate balance and highly contextual/situational

c) the handler being able to really “be there” and both willing and able of investing themselves in an authentic way (dogs do not fall for less). Coherence, congruity and continuity matter to dogs, just as they do to people. You must be lined up body/mind/soul with what you’re intending to offer the dog by way of connection with you. Incongruous, disconnected or incoherent intent/actions will make any intelligent creature doubtful of the value of interacting with you.

d) the relationship & the social interaction must be valuable to the dog. People would like to think it is so, but it ain’t always so! In some situations, the social aspect counts for a lot, in other situations, not much.

e) in the case of fear/anxiety, understand that trust/respect/relationship only go so far. If they went as far as some trainers seem to think, none of us would be afraid of snakes or spiders once a trusted & beloved friend showed us how wonderful snakes & spiders are! Respecting the fear/anxiety as separate from the relationship is critical. Understanding that the relationship can be an important support, but cannot be superimposed over the fear/anxiety with the plan to ‘erase’ the fear. (I am always deeply saddened by people who say, “If only he trust me more, he would know he was safe” in a situation where the dog clearly felt anything but safe…)

f) understanding that social interaction can be a serious (and often unwelcome/unhappy) pressure for many dogs, so it must be used with care and with respect to what the dog has to say about it. Easy parallel – you’re really worried about something, and a well meaning friend keeps telling you, “It’s okay, I’m here for you, you can do this, it’s all going to turn out fine, here have a cookie, and you’re doing great, and we’re going to get thru this blah, blah, blah” non-stop till you want to scream because that kind of contact with that friend in that moment is just adding to your stress, not helping in any way however well intentioned the friend might be. Just like people, dogs differ in what they find supportive. Some find a gentle stream of information very comforting & useful, others find the room (mentally, emotionally and/or physically) to think and process makes it easier to cope. One must actually ask the dog himself what works for him, and then do that, no matter what your individual preferences or style might be. While you might like a stream of comfort, he might not; while you might prefer to be left alone, he may not. Ask the dog!

I use the food to underline “what a great choice!” and to create the best possible balance in the intrinsic/extrinsic reinforcement equation. Obviously, where there is a damaged or unestablished relationship (such as I face when working in a seminar setting with any unknown dog), then food carries greater weight. And yet even with unknown dogs, I am totally with them to the best of my ability. Social creatures of any species do not miss the authenticity of someone trying to connect to them, trying hard to listen, keeping as tight a feedback loop as can be done in that moment. It’s understood and appreciated. Best, it’s always available – a genuine connection from who we are to who that animal is in that moment.

Do you want to learn more about using rewards in training – you can enroll in Suzanne’s recorded webinar Rewards, Lures and Bribes now at