Think of reinforcement as feedback to your dog. But what does your dog find reinforcing?
A lot of dogs are highly motivated by food. Others are motivated by toys, the chance to sniff or chase or squirrel. Not only should you figure out what your dog likes, you should try to determine how much your dog likes it so you know how to use it in your training. When a dog is learning something new or is in a new or distracting environment, you will need something the dog really values.
Food works well because it is a primary reinforcer that all animals need to live. It is also an ideal reinforcer because you can give it to the dog quickly so you have the opportunity to have a number of repetitions of a behavior in a short period of time. Since you may be giving your dog a lot of treats during a training session, it is important to make the treats small (pea-sized or smaller) and to cut back on the dog’s regular food. This is especially important for small dogs who may fill up quickly.
WHAT TO USE
Some typical treats that dogs enjoy are hot dogs, cheese, turkey, beef, liverwurst, and any number of commercially available treats. String cheese is great because you can break off a few pieces when you need them and put the rest back in your pocket. Many dogs also love fruit and vegetables and carrots and apples can be an excellent low-cal option. Unfortunately my dog is not a big fan of raw fruits and veggies but she goes crazy for baby food so I will give her sweet potatoes or chicken and beef flavored baby food. I either freeze it in one of her Kongs so she can lick it or put it in a small squeeze bottle. The good store-bought treats can get expensive but can be more convenient if you are traveling or will be out in warmer weather. Some options I have used are Blue Bites, Zuke’s Minis, Wellness Well Bites, Solid Gold Turkey Jerkey, Bravo’s freeze dried treats and food rolls from Red Barn and Happy Howies. What ever you use, it is important to vary it so the dog does not get bored with a particular treat.
WHAT DOES YOUR DOG LIKE MOST?
You probably have some idea of what your dog likes best but you can test it by holding a piece of one treat in one hand and a different treat in the other and offering both closed hands to your dog to see which one he/she goes for. Compare the winners to each other and the losers to each other and you will get a value hierarchy for your dog. Reserve the ones they will do anything to get for when you really need it. I bring the baby food out when there are a lot of distractions because my dog loses focus very easily.
There are a lot of dogs who will ignore food for the chance to chase a ball, play with a squeak toy, or play tug with you. Each repetition may take a little more time than just putting a treat in your dog’s mouth but using toys can be an incredible effective way of training. Dogs who like to tug can be taught to stay by tugging with them and then when they move, the tug game stops. Believe me, they get it pretty quickly. Just as with food, you can figure out which toys your dog likes most.
Sniffing and chasing squirrels are favorite activities for some dogs. You can incorporate these into training as well. I taught my dog to wait at the bottom of the stairs by letting her run up the stairs after she is released. She loves it and it worked because of a concept called the Premack Principle. Even attention and affection can be highly motivating for some dogs. Know your dog and know what he/she likes and you are on your way to training success.