Saturday, February 26, 2022

What is Reinforcing to Your Dog?

In a world where +R Dog Trainers often want you to use treats or kibble for all training or take the opposite approach and never feed treats, we so often forget that our dogs can be motivated and reinforced by so much more in life. I won't deny that using food is often the easiest reinforcement to use when trying to train a new behavior. If you are after a partnership lifestyle with your dog, you want them to experience the best life they can while they also make your life better.

What if the best in life experience isn't food related? There are so many other things in our "people world" that dogs love! With all dogs being unique individuals, with personalities, likes/dislikes, and opinions, it only makes sense that dogs would potentially have a very diverse perception of what is reinforcing. I talked about breed traits a bit in a recent blog "What is Enriching to Your Dog" and the same sometimes is true for reinforcement as well. Herding breeds often love to herd, hunting dogs often love to hunt, working lines, often love to work, etc. When we know what our dog's love, we can add that into our routine to be both enriching and reinforcing at the same time. This sounds like a perfect partnership world doesn't it?

But what if we can't figure out what is reinforcing or how to use that reinforcement during our training sessions? I'm going to try to make that easier for you in this blog and the next one!

The Pick One Game

Pick One is a scent based game that any dog can learn very quickly and is a great way to figure out what food and toys your dog loves the most! Most parents have played this game with their child at some point. You take a treat in your hand, place both hands behind your back so your dog can not see the treat. Then move both hands out in front to present them to your dog a few inches apart and with a loose grip so your dog can easily find the treat. Most dogs will zero in on the treat right away!

You can encourage the behavior you want your dog to do to earn the treat based on how you present your hands. If you present your hands low, your dog will generally paw at your hand to get the treat. If you present your hands up high, your dog will generally lick or nose your hand to get to the treat. Present your hands wisely!

In the beginning, you want your dog to win right away so you want to encourage your dog to pick the correct hand and do the behavior you are after. Use rapid reinforcement a few times if your dog is close to doing the correct behavior, then slowly start delaying the treat until your dog completes the full behavior you want. If your dog chooses incorrectly, simply open your empty hand to show them that it is empty, then present your hands again encouraging the correct hand. It won’t take long and your dog will start to pick the correct hand every time!

You can use this trick to your advantage to help you learn which treats your dog rates as high value and which treats they don’t like as much. Place one treat, perhaps a milkbone, in one hand and a different treat such as a peanut butter flavored treat in your other hand. Your dog will generally pick their favorite treat first then pick the other treat. After a few attempts, switch the treats into opposite hands to see if your dog is always picking the same hand or always picking the same treat. You can also do this with two toys! Giving your dog a choice in this fun game is a simple way to allow your dog to make choices.

Environmental Reinforcers

I've said before that 2 of Azul's favorite reinforcers are sniffing and socializing, but how do I know that?  I'm going to use one of my client's dog's as another example, Maverick loves to MOVE!  When we take a social walk with Azul and Maverick, it's challenging because Azul wants to stop and sniff along the way and Maverick wants to GO, GO, GO!  Yet they are the best of friends so they also want to be together.  I'll get into how we work that to our favor in the next blog, but for now I'm going to stick with how to determine what your dog's favorite things are.  The easiest way that I've found to figure out what my dog loves is to watch them during Free Work time.  Free Work is kind of a new buzz word in the dog training community, but it basically means the dog is off leash or on a longline in a large space and seemingly ignored to explore whatever they find most interesting.  I do this on our regular sniff-a-bouts, but you don't have to go beyond your backyard or local park to practice.

Before you head out to do some Free Work, do a bit of prep time in the area you will be working in.
  1. Safety first!  Scan the area for anything that might hurt your dog; glass, sharp things, trash your dog might eat, etc.  Also remove anything you don't want your dog to destroy so you don't have to chase them away from something if they are more interested in that.
  2. Add some things that you think are most fun to the environment; toys, treats, scattered kibble in the grass, obstacles to climb on, jump over, etc.
  3. Be sure to have some natural, environment things in the environment too!  This could be grass, trees, woodchips, water to drink and/or play in, anything.
  4. Then take a comfy seat for your self and sit in one area to observe your dog and possibly manage your longline.  You might want to have something to pretend to do, especially if your dog is typically attached at your hip; a book, your phone, something to show disinterest to your dog so they feel like they are free to explore.
Sit back and watch your dog to see what they do first?  
  • If they quickly move through the environment not really paying close attention to anything, they may enjoy moving like Maverick or they may feel the need to scan the environment for potential threats.
  • If they won't leave your side after you disengage from them, they are most likely saying that YOU are their largest reinforcement so feel free to get up and play with them for a bit then see if they will explore more.  They could also not be leaving your side, because they are fearful of this changed environment or somewhat unsure of what they are supposed to be doing.  Make sure you're paying attention to their body language to determine this!
  • If they ignore most of the goodies you've put out for them, they are pretty much saying the natural things in the environment are more fun!  Are they quick to zoom around or do they take their time sniffing the great outdoors?  Is there something they want to reach but can't such as a neighbor dog or squirrel in a tree?
  • Are they climbing on top of things, circling things, or jumping things often?  If so, agility or parkour activities might be reinforcing to them.
  • Are they drawn the yummy treats that you have hidden for them?  If so, consider yourself lucky because they are highly food motivated.  But then do they go for the high value treats that are more challenging to access?  Or choose the easier treats that are easy to reach?  From here you can set up all kinds of challenges to help build their confidence and develop their seeking skills and therefore learning how to use "seeking" as a form of reinforcement.
  • Are they drawn to the toys in the yard?  Do they pick up a ball and carry it with them everywhere?  That toy might be their favorite, but are they bringing it to you to play or simply carrying it around while they move through the environment?  What happens if there is more then one ball in the environment?  Do they trade back and forth, try to keep all the balls together in one spot, or try to get you to interact by tossing, tugging or chasing them?
Are you starting to get the idea?  If left totally alone in any environment, what will your dog choose to do?  And how then can you offer that choice to them more often?  And how can you turn it into reinforcement for the behavior you love?  That's my next blog!

Using Maverick's love of food and movement to help him conquer his fear of stairs. 
He could resist the food on the stairs, despite the fact that he loves food!
But he couldn't resist Azul running up and down the stairs for fun!

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