As a positive reinforcement trainer I use a lot of food, especially in the beginning of training, to reward a dog for doing the right thing. Food, in general, is an easy and efficient way to let your dog know that he was on target with the desired behavior and for most dogs, it isn’t something we need to teach them to like. Depending on the circumstances and what we are working on, I will use the dog’s food (if we are in a low distraction situation) or higher value treats if the situation is more demanding or distracting to the dog and I need something to keep and hold his attention. I will eventually reduce the amount of food I use, and switch to other forms of reinforcement, but when teaching a new skill or working under unusual circumstances, I rely on tasty morsels to reward my dog.
If you want to reduce the amount of food rewards you use, the first thing to remember is that it is important to reward your dog every time he does something you ask him to do or that you appreciate him doing. If you want a behavior to increase in frequency or stay strong, it’s important that your dog understand that this behavior is worth his effort. You can begin to reduce the amount of food by combining it with other reinforcements. This is particularly handy when you reach into your bait bag and discover you only have a small handful of treats left. If I need to reward my dog for a particularly good performance and I have just a few morsels (or I want to reduce food rewards), I will pet, praise, play, and strategically throw in a couple of pieces of food. I find that dogs respond very well to 20-30 seconds of wonderfulness that includes all the things that they enjoy: your attention and affection, play, and a snack.
Another way to reduce the amount of food you use is to use it intermittently when reinforcing routine behaviors. If your dog really knows sit, then you don’t need to reinforce with food every time she plunks her bottom on the ground. A “Good Girl!” or scratch under the ear is probably sufficient, most of the time, to reward a sit. However, giving her a treat on occasion will help to keep the behavior strong as she never knows when the treat is coming and it just might be this time! (Think in terms of being a Vegas slot machine. Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes it’s a little, and every once in awhile, it’s a jackpot!) If, however, you ask her to do something routine (such as a sit) in a completely new and exciting environment (such as the entrance to the dog park), it will be much harder for her to comply. Let her know that you appreciate the effort she has put into doing this in a difficult situation by rewarding her with something really meaningful to her.
What do you do, however, when your dog is not food motivated, or is on a restricted diet? In a recent blog I discussed three things to experiment with to determine what is motivating to your dog. I have also written about making a list of 5 things your dog loves that you can use to reward your dog. But, how exactly do you use these things to reward your dog?
Let’s imagine that you are in the back yard and your dog heads over to the fence to bark at the neighbor’s kids. You call him, he stops, looks at you, looks at the fence, and decides to come to you. This tough decision needs to be rewarded in some way! If you have a toy, reward his come with a game of tug, fetch, or chase-me-to-get-the-toy. If you don’t have a toy readily available, then spend a full 30 seconds petting him, scratching his favorite spot, and telling him what a brilliant boy he was!
You can also use play as a way to teach a new behavior. I have a dog who is not particularly food motivated but LOVES to play. To teach her to sit between tosses of the ball I use two tennis balls when we play fetch. I toss the first one and when she brings it back, I show her the second ball. When she drops the first one and sits, the second one is immediately thrown. Off she flies and I pick up the first ball, and the cycle continues. I am using what she loves to do to get her to practice the impulse control (i.e.: sit) that I want from her.
I had a client whose dog had some very unusual dietary restrictions so treats were not an option. Bailey loved squeaky toys, however, so the owner bought several and kept them in a box in the closet with his leash. When walk time came, she would get one of the toys out of the box and tuck it in a pocket or bait bag. When Bailey got overly excited about something on his walk she would say his name, and squeak the toy. Bailey would turn and look at her, and she would give him the toy to hold. This calmed him and he would trot along with his Zen-inducing toy in his mouth until he relaxed enough to drop it. Susan would pick it up, tuck it away, and repeat the process as needed. At the end of the walk, the toy was put back in the box so that it remained special.
Figuring out what your dog loves, what motivates him to check in with you, and what holds his attention, will help you to know how best to creatively reward those behaviors that make you say, “What a good dog!”
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