If you read my last blog on how to determine what is reinforcing to your dog and you played some games & free work to find out what your dog loves, then you are ready to learn how to turn that into reinforcement that you can use!
First let's take a look at why our dogs might love some of the things they love! Most of those "things" can be broken down into a few categories; things that make them feel physically good, things that make them feel emotionally good, and things that make them feel mentally good. Although some of those "things" may fit into more then one category!
Physical Reinforcement: This typically involves movement of some sorts, whether it's racing after something they want or calmer more directed movements, our dogs typically find pleasure in moving. This can be satisfied by simply doing their favorite activity or game. But it can also be satisfied in training sessions by developing repetitive movements to enhance core muscle memory.
Emotional Reinforcement: This involves changing the environment in such a way that addresses the dog's basic need to feel Safe, Calm, & Happy. By decreasing fear & anxiety, we help our dogs build trust in our partnership which adds a type of emotional reinforcement that simply can't be topped! We can do this by avoiding environments that we know our dog is not prepared to be in, having a plan of action for when our dogs demonstrate that they are stressed, and providing the management tools to ensure safety for everyone in the environment. Dogs will seek out the people that they have a strong relationship with and often avoid people that they've had negative relationships with making relationships one of the highest value self-reinforcers out there.
Mental Reinforcement: This may seem odd to you, but this often involves games! It has been found that the act of playing develops a very strong core emotion that dogs find highly pleasant. When a dog is enjoying the game, dopamine raises which increases the anticipation of future adventures or games. It's no wonder many Dog Trainers are changing to a game based approach to training sessions.
Games Based Reinforcement
If you've followed my blog or my Yooper Paws Facebook Page for any time, you know how much I love to play games with my dogs. Cam is ball man who will do anything to play a game of ball and Azul is my tug buddy that doesn't realize he is learning while we are playing. I can't begin to list all the things I've taught Azul while playing tug, some of which I put on cue and some I haven't! It was very apparent at a young age that Azul loved tug, so instead I'm going to share a list of YouTube Videos that I already have on my channel:
One of the videos shows Cam being hesitant to do a behavior because I'm offering a tug toy as reinforcement which is NOT reinforcing to him. I could have done the same activity with a ball and he would have been flying over the hurdle. Most of the tug videos could also be done with a ball or a two ball system that we commonly use to keep the game moving quickly for the dog that loves to chase.
Find It Games is another way to help reinforce great behaviors. While I teach Find It Games with food, I generally switch to other objects such as toys that lead to reinforcement in the way of a game once my dog finds the toy and returns it to me. This is more reinforcement for bringing treasures to me to keep the reinforcement history high for the Hand Delivered Retrieve Task. I also add in objects that I want my dog to learn the name of such as meds, phone, keys, etc. and once those are retrieved, I reinforce with a tug game.
I hope this gives you an idea of some games that you can play using your dog's favorite toys. But if you need help developing games, based on your dog's preference of toys, let me know! I love this kind of challenge.
I feel like I touched based on this on all the posts at the beginning of February that dealt with emotions. But I wanted to expand briefly on the subject that dogs seek the attention of those they've had positive experiences with. I want you to be selfish for a moment and consider how your behaviors are impacted based on your state of physical well being. If we as people are tired, hungry, in pain, or off in other ways, we tend to react to things in our environment more harshly then if we were feeling well. Our dogs are the same way! Dog Trainers commonly refer to trigger stacking when one bad thing happens after another and suddenly our dog is reacting to a rather small trigger because they just can't cope any more that day. We've all been there as people!
But does this have to do with reinforcement? Well, when we give our dogs choices where the easy choice is the right choice we hope they will make we are reinforcing those choices creating a history that makes that choice more likely to repeat itself. For example: Azul does a ton of sniff-a-bouts on various lengths of leash and longlines. I manage the situations we are in by using the length that he can best be successful at, so that when I give him cues to be easy, go around, turn right/left, etc. the choices he has to make can be successful. I may have to wait and give him a minute to process the directional cue, but when he makes the right choice the sniff-a-bout continues. If he makes the wrong choice, which is rare unless he is over-excited by something, the sniff-a-bout halts. This not only lets the self-reinforcement sniffing impact his choices, but also teaches him that following directional cues is reinforcing for us both. We all know that we as people, enjoy the walks much better when our dogs can make good choices and follow our cues! Otherwise the walk tends to end in frustration for all of us!
The more choices we build into our dog's lifestyle, the better they become at self regulating and the more the offer the behaviors we love on a more regular basis.