Why is it important to figure out what your pet finds reinforcing?


When I go for walks with my dog Forbes, I have a lot of good stuff in my pockets. Other people’s dogs smell my pockets too, and tend to become glued to me–they stare, sniff, jump, and generally treat me like I’m pretty special. It always amazes me how the owners of these dogs start scolding their dogs for begging and do their best to haul them away from me, while all I’m thinking is: can borrow your dog for some training? I have something your dog wants. I so have his number.

Alternatively, I feel like handing out my treats to the owner and instructing him or her to take advantage of the dog’s desires; you have  something he considers valuable, now you can train him to do what you want him to do. I wish more people would realize how wonderful it is to be in possession of something that your dog wants, it opens the doors for an amazing clear pathway for communication.

Which woud you find most rewarding?

Training is all about manipulating the consequences of a behavior. In order to reinforce the behaviors that we like we have to have something that the dog wants. Food is the easiest reinforcement; it fits nicely into our pockets, and we can deliver it repeatedly in small quantities.  Another common reinforcement is play. If you are one of those people whose dog is willing to flip a somersault for a piece of kibble, I truly envy you. If your dog is tennis ball crazy I also envy you. Since you have these easy tools you can train your dog anything that he is mentally and physically capable of doing.When it comes to food treats, you need to find what your dog will find rewarding. Every healthy animal will eat; they will not starve themselves. Years ago, I remember ‘starving’ my late Hovawart Dea for a couple of weeks, only giving her food when we were outside training passing other dogs. I was reluctant to do this in the beginning, I had a lot of ‘what if’s’ but I was told that in the wild, the prey would not just fly into my dog’s mouth, either. A hungry dog is a motivated dog! Throughout Dea’s life, most of her food came through training, especially when she was at herpeak in obedience/tracking/search and rescue training. Oh no, she would never give me anything for free, I had to really use my imagination.

If you’re rationing your dog’s food in this way but find he is still picky about the menu, then it is time to bring out the big guns. With Forbes, most of the commercial dog treats just don’t do it. Treats carry different values for different dogs, in different quantities, in different environments, etc. For instance, I myself would work much harder for $100 than for $1. I also differentiate between currencies, I prefer Canadian dollars, Euros and US dollars (in this order) to other currencies because they just have more value for me –I live in Canada, hail from Finland, and sometimes visit the States. Then there’s the matter of the task at hand: The harder the job, the more motivated I am to try if the stakes are higher.Forbes feels pretty much the same way (except to him, a dollar is totally worthless). When we are training, my treat pouch is filled with meatballs, cheese, skin from barbecued chicken, beef, liver, chicken heart, giblets and such. Do my fingers get icky? Yes.  But that is a sacrifice I am willing to make for my dogs, and I don’t care if my dog training clothes are covered in grease. I have lately discovered the delights of liverwurst, that stuff will never let you down! Just today a client’s young Dachshund who has developed phobias towards being handled by people was climbing all over me and let me pull his ears in anticipation of the liverwurst. A pretty reactive Doberman in our Cranky Canine classes is now focused on his owner, his eye practically rolled over in his head the first time he was liverwursted. I had trouble getting Forbes to retrieve objects outside in our tracking exercises, he was too distracted, but then I brought out…liverwurst! His motivation increased 500 percent. All hail the power of liverwurst.

All hail the powers of liverwurst

How about if you really would love to play with your dog but he doesn’t grab the rope toy that you bought for him and that is invitingly left for him to have any time? Dogs are like little kid: whatever they can have all the time becomes boring. You need to make the reward toys are sacred; only youcan magically make them appear in exchange for behaviors that you like. This is all that was required for my dogs in the past: take the tug toy out of your pocket and the Hovawart jaws were already on it. Then I got Forbes, who had no desire to tug with me. I took all the good advice from trainers like Susan Garrett and Jean Donaldson and used the techniques of shaping in order to train him to enjoy tugging.

The toys that Forbes finds most rewarding.

I found that jute tugs are the best.  I started by teaching Forbes to retrieve a tug toy. Next I started holding onto the tug toy harder when he returned it to me, and clicked and treated harder grabs on it. That worked, and now Forbes is happily tugging with me. Unless the environment is too distracting for him as I next discovered –then his idea of what is rewarding changes.  In those moments, I use a toy made out of real fur. He goes crazy over it. In fact, it works well even in training sessions where other dogs are present.

My dog has made his choice. Of course, the number one reward for him is still sniffing a female dog’s bum, I don’t think I can fit that into my pocket.If you are having motivational issues with your dog, it is time to start experimenting.

(This post originally appeared ClickertrainingToronto)


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