Behavior & Training
Print|Email|Text Size: ||
Rewards Redux

Thus, food, petting and praise are great reinforcers if and only if they’re something your dog wants at the time they’re given, as opposed to something that makes you feel good for giving them. But there’s much more to PR than dog treats, pets and praise. This is where great trainers become truly creative, and is often the reason some dogs are phenomenally responsive. My favorite story of creative reinforcement comes from Bark blogger and CAAB Dr. Karen B. London. She was out with her newly acquired Lab mix, Bugsy, when they flushed a deer. She called him to come just before he sprang off in pursuit, and to her joy and amazement, he turned and ran back to her. Alas, before their outing, she had switched jackets on the fly and inadvertently left her training treats at home. She couldn’t even take off running to let Bugsy chase her because she was wearing cross-country skis and facing the wrong way in the ski track. Ever the quick thinker, Karen reached into her pocket, took out a used tissue and gave it to Bugsy when he arrived. Voila! Her dog was thrilled at this acquisition, and Karen’s creative thinking laid a foundation for a solid recall for years to come.

I turned to my own blog for examples of creative reinforcements, and my readers responded with enough ideas to inspire all of us. There were lots of examples of letting the dog have limited access to the very distraction she had been called away from (compost heap, dead bird, garbage bag). Many comments revolved around what trainers call “life rewards,” meaning the dog gets what she wants as a matter of course during the day (say, going outside after waiting at the door). Another easy way to reinforce your dog is to use a well-known cue as a reinforcer itself. For example, most dogs know how to sit on cue, and if you’ve used PR to train this behavior, the cue itself becomes a secondary reinforcer: “If I sit as asked I’ll get a treat! I love to sit!”

However, there are many more ways to expand your repertoire — you just need to know what your dog loves. Effective reinforcements include ice cubes, snowballs, bunny poop, cheering and clapping, pine cones, feathers, paper-towel tubes, digging, being allowed to sniff interesting things, running around the yard in crazy circles … and on and on. You can see that the list is almost endless — you’re constrained only by the number of things that make your dog happy and being mindful of your dog’s safety (e.g., you can sniff some things but not ingest them). One smart agility trainer had a dog who, no matter what she tried, would not go around the last weave pole. Then she remembered that her dog loved to jump into the car, so she set up the poles leading toward the car and used jumping in as a reward for weaving around the last pole.

Another agility trainer taught a fearful dog to enjoy the teeter board by using scent marking as a reward. Turns out the dog loved to lift his leg and mark objects, so every time he took one step closer to walking across the teeter, he got to lift his leg on the fence! This is a perfect example of what psychologists call the “Premack principle,” which says that a more-probable behavior can be used to reinforce a less-probable behavior. In other words, if your dog loves to dig, there’s a high probability he’ll do it if he has the chance. If that’s true, you can use digging as a reinforcer, secure in the knowledge that he must love it if he does it so often. If there is a low probability he’ll come when called after he’s seen a squirrel, you can use digging to reinforce a recall in that context.

CommentsPost a Comment
Please note comments are moderated. After being approved your comment will appear below.
Submitted by Anonymous | March 2 2011 |

Great article!!

I have a 15 month old male doberman who does anything for food. Like the article states, if I do not have food, theres a good chance he will ignore me if his priorities are different than mine. So I started to train with a tug toy that only comes out during training and alternate that with food rewards. This guy will do anything twice as fast if it means he gets to play somewhere during the session.

Now I am going to look for other methods of motivation. As I see it, the more interesting you can make it, the more they want to do it.

Submitted by Anonymous | March 24 2011 |

I often use my friends' dogs' play as my Doberman's reward when I'm at the park. Today, I also learned that she responded REALLY well to my high-pitched voice on her recalls. Reading this article let me know to be more creative with my PR rewards! I'm glad I found this article.

Submitted by Gerdien | January 26 2014 |

I once had a moment of quick-thinking, very successful training, and learned a lot from the result. My Airedale picked up a piece of candy in a store, and as I had taught her not to pick up food from the floor I immediately told her to drop it. Something I never expected this food-mad dog to do: she dropped it in an instance!
And I didn't have anything on me to reward this great piece of behaviour.... So I told her to 'take it' again and let her eat it as a reward (it was a harmless piece of liquorice). I'll never forget this moment, which I was fortunately able to reward with the same device that caused the problem haha

More From The Bark

Patricia McConnell
Patricia McConnell
Prey Drive
Karen B. London
More in Behavior & Training:
Helping an Anxious Dog
Dogs Take to the New
Zack's Amazing Transformation
Bringing Home a Second Dog
Cautious Canines
Aggression in Dogs
Q&A with Denise Fenzi
Training Dog Trainers
Is Your Dog a Southpaw?
Run for Your Quality of Your Dog's Life