“All of those positive reinforcement (R+) trainers always use food for training.”...“The dogs won’t work unless they see you have treats.”...“My dog isn’t that food motivated, so R+ training clearly won’t work for us….”
Have you heard these comments?...Have you made these comments?
Let’s take a step back and address these common misunderstandings about training dogs and more specifically, about using positive reinforcement methods to teach basic to advanced manners, skills, and tricks.
All Dogs Like Food
It is true that most R+ trainers use food as their go-to when training. This is because all dogs like food. They require food to survive, and so if they’re alive, they will want to eat. Using small, tasty bits of food allows for quick reinforcement and rapid repetitions, which maximizes our time during a given training session. This doesn’t mean all dogs will eat everything we present in every situation. Some dogs are really not motivated enough by food to work for it consistently. So, what are we supposed to do?
When using R+ training, the first thing you need to determine is what motivates your dog (or cat or guinea pig or bunny or bird or…)
Determining Treat Values
For many critters, it will be food, but not all food does the trick (pun intended!). You’ll need to do some taste tests with your pet and see which foods they think are “meh,” which they like, and which they will “walk on the ceiling” for. Knowing low value, medium value, and high value treats gives us the ability to not only reinforce behaviors we like, but to do so with performance-based precision. With a slow or haphazard response, we may reward Sparky with some kibble, whereas, a decent performance would be met with a soft dog treat. In the event of an excellent performance, we can treat our dog with real meat or cheese (or whatever your dog will do back-flips for!).
What to Do When Your Dog is “Meh” About Food?
Now it’s time to think outside the box. Pay attention to the things your dog likes and loves. Is it an ear rub he leans in for? Will he drop a ball at your feet and then bore a hole through your soul waiting for you to throw it? Does he shove the rope toy into your hand in the hopes that you’ll play tug of war with him? At the mention of a walk, does he do a happy dance?
Zoe Had the Zoomies
When it comes down to it, anything that your dog likes or loves can be used as a reinforcer when using R+ training methods. I had a client dog years ago who was not interested in food or toys. She wouldn’t even settle for cuddles. Her very favorite thing was to play chase where she got to chase her people. Therefore, we used that. We taught her Sit, Down, Stay, Come, and Leave It just for the opportunity to chase her people around the room. It was a little odd, certainly. Training this way definitely made some skills more challenging to repeat. To create a settled behavior when the reinforcer was running full speed, doing “zoomies” around the room was an effort, but we made it work.
What Does Your Dog Want Right Now
It’s important to think about reinforcers from the dog’s perspective and think in real time. What does the dog want right this minute? Reinforcers can change over time--even during a single training session. Your dog may want to play Fetch like there’s no tomorrow, but after 15 throws (as reinforcement for 15 Sit/Stays), the dog may be tired. Fetch may not be so reinforcing now. In fact, it may even feel a little punishing if he’s really tired out. Now he may prefer to work for a belly rub.
Premack Principle During R+ Training
There’s a cool concept called the Premack Principle that we can use to our advantage during R+ training. The Premack Principle says that the opportunity to perform a high probability behavior will reinforce the performance of a low probability behavior. Basically, it means that we can teach our dogs to do a less desirable behavior for the opportunity to do a more desirable behavior. Does your dog like to dig? Work near his dig-pit, and when he does his manners skills, reward him with time to dig. I taught a shelter dog loose leash walking using the opportunity to mark (pee on stuff) as his reinforcer! It worked out very well for him.
Empowering Our Pets with Choices
The key to quality R+ training is to empower our dogs to decide what is most reinforcing in that moment and honor that. Whether it’s food, fetch, belly rubs, sniffing the bushes, marking the trees, digging in his dig-box, going for walks, or anything else he likes to do, let your dog guide you as to what he is happiest working for in that moment, and use it to your advantage.
Now that you know, R+ training does not need to be food and can be literally anything that your dog likes or loves. Don’t wait! Get out there and set your dog up for success so you can Mark and Reward and tell him “Yes! I love that choice! Please do that some more!”
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.