This is a question I hear almost daily. The answer of course is whatever your dog really likes! Some dogs go ga-ga for their kibble or commercial treats, some go crazy for chicken, liver or leftover steak and a few will eschew the food for a good game of ball or tug! Whatever you find to be your dog's motivators remember a few basic rules:
1. If you are using a food reward make it TINY, most dogs do well on 1/4" cubes of whatever you are using
2. Moist treats are always easier to eat quickly so you can move on to the next behavior, you really don't want to have to wait while your dog chews an entire milkbone to practice the next skill.
3. Some dogs are SO food motivated that you have to dial it back a bit (think labradors and goldens!), if your food treats are too high value all they will be thinking about is the food, not the behavior. For those dogs you can try carrots, peas or dry kibble (small bite please).
4. A good option for small or, mouthy dogs is liquid treat dispensed out of a plastic bottle with an adjustable tip. There are a couple of good liquid treats on the market, a food enhancing powder mixed with water works well, but don't use broth (too high in salt and may contain onion or galic in large quantities)! This is also a good option for the chunky dogs as it is low in calories.
5. Another option for small dogs is a bit of peanut butter or cream cheese smeared on a wooden spoon, it beats bending over and trying to get a tiny treat into a tiny dog! Click, Lick and you are ready to go again!
6. If you are using a favorite toy, reserve that toy for training only! Better yet, have 2-3 very favorite toys that your dog only gets during training time. Use it just like the food, click, play (2-4 seconds) take it back, next behavior please!
7. When using toys or tug as a motivator you MUST teach a cue for the dog to drop/relinquish the object before using it in training. You don't want the training session to denegrate into a game of chase!
8. If you are using a tug toy, it's a good idea to teach your dog Tug/Settle. This is a game you play where you play tug for a bit, and on the word 'settle' (or some other appropriate cue) your dog knows to reliquish the toy and calm down. This prevents the dog for getting so worked up over tug it takes over!
9. Finally, remember if you are using a clicker you MUST give a treat each time you click a behavior! Be sure and click first, THEN move to take the treat out of your bag and give it to your dog. Clicking and moving to get the treat at the same time takes the dogs attention away from the behavior and puts it squarely on your bait hand!
10. If you are not using a clicker remember you only have 1.5-2 seconds to deliver the treat to your dog for the dog to associate the reward with the behavior. (HINT: Clickers are a much clearer way to communicate with your dog)
BTW, for my local customers, I have been experimenting with a couple of recipes for liquid treats and will have a stock of good gravy powder and dispensers available by April 1.