How can you use things in the environment as reinforcement?
One of the first things I do is teach my dog about delayed reinforcement. To do this, we play impulse control games that include delayed reinforcement. The "It's Yer Choice" game, taught to me by Susan Garrett, is where you offer a low value reinforcement and by your dog choosing to ignore it, earns a high value reward. You start with your dog only ignoring the low value for 1-2 seconds, then slowly increase the time you ask your dog to ignore the low value treat. I also play a tug game designed to build speed in accomplishing tasks, but helps with delayed reinforcement as well. I use 2 of Azul's toys to toss and tug. To start I gently hold Azul's harness or lead and toss his toy a few feet in front of us, pausing for a second before releasing Azul with the Get It cue. Now racing to the toy is a medium level motivation for Azul, but the real fun starts when he comes back to me for a game of tug. As soon as I release him to get the toy, I start moving in the opposite direction so he has to quickly return to me for the tug game. This game is great for teaching so many things, but it helps with delayed reinforcement as you can slowly add time before the release and throw the tug further away so it takes longer to get back. Eventually, I don't need to hold Azul back, because he will wait to be released in anticipation for the tug game to follow.
I think the easiest environmental reinforcement to learn to use is the sniffing. Yes, I can't find all the really great sniff spots, but I can choose to walk in a wide variety of locations that are sure to provide good smells for Azul to sniff. There is a loose leash walking exercise in which you let your dog walk along and when they pull the leash tight, you stop and wait for them to relax the leash before you walk again. (Does this sound a little bit like delayed reinforcement?) Well this walking exercise really kicks into gear with a dog who loves to sniff, gets the hint of a great spot. They pull to get to the spot, and you counter with a stop until they stop pulling. They relax the leash and you allow them to continue to the spot. This may take awhile, but eventually the dog learns that by keeping the leash loose they get to smell whatever they want. My dogs get at least 2 free sniff-a-bout walks in our yard every day, in turn this reinforces being calm in the house. Azul earns additional sniff-a-bout walks by joining me out in public doing his Service Dog tasks. If we have a really long day, we will take several short sniff-a-bouts throughout the day, and a longer walk at the end or a game of tug. This is a win-win for both Azul and I, as he has the fun & I benefit from the exercise, plus we both love being outdoors.
One of the hardest reinforcements for me to learn to use effectively is playing with other dogs. Don't get me wrong, Azul plays with other dogs quite regularly. But turning this into reinforcement for working hard is the tricky part. Since Azul often goes on dog training sessions with me, we have been able to establish a routine of a quick greeting with some play on leash, then a training session, finishing with an extended play on either a longline or in an off leash area. This is helpful for many reasons, most importantly for this post is that dogs learn to ignore the other dog when in work mode and the play will come at the end. The other thing this does is help seal in the learning part of the session. Dogs learn better if the session involves games, the dog plays their favorite game at the end, then takes a rest period. Almost every training session I have with my dogs, we will play one of their favorite games; tug, flirt pole, puppy play, etc.
All of these environmental reinforcers are very hard to use when training a new skill. I try to hold any new concept training sessions at a time when I know that Azul will be interested in food motivation because that is so much easier. Then once he gets the basic concept, I can move toward using one of these environmental reinforcers to proof the concept in a wide variety of places with a varied level of distractions. To do this, I use a marker word to let him know he is doing what I want; yes, good boy, rockstar, etc. When Azul hears these marker words, he knows he's doing a great job and will be reinforced more heavily at the end of the session or outing. In the end, Azul and I develop a great relationship of give & take, where we work together to help both of us do the things we enjoy.