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Best Positive Reinforcement for Humans

Dog-styled chocolate is even cuter than a chocolate frog!
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2017, Updated June 2021

A client who is also a friend returned from a trip to New York with the most wonderful gift—a big box of gourmet chocolates. Just as wonderful as the taste of these confections was their appearance, especially the one shaped like a dog—decorated right down to its little collar.

It’s so reinforcing to receive chocolate as a thank you for dog training, but to have a sweet treat in the form of a little dog charmed me more than I can say. The perfect thing about this gift was that it was chosen thoughtfully based on what I (the receiver) would most enjoy. Choosing what someone else will like is a good skill for dog trainers because when it comes to positive reinforcement, it’s what the dog likes that matters.

When you are training, the individual who is learning determines what is reinforcing. If you want your dog to come when called, for example, it is wise to reinforce this most important and potentially life-saving behavior with something the dog adores. For most dogs, chicken or steak is perfect, but for the rare dog who doesn’t like these foods, cheese or hot dogs may be a better choice. A favorite toy is a great option for dogs who love to play with objects, but toys will not work as reinforcement for dogs who don’t care about them. Similarly, reinforcing a dog by taking him for a car ride is a great option for dogs who love life on the road, but terrible for those who are scared, nervous or simply carsick when driving anywhere.

In dog training, as in many things in life, sometimes it’s the littlest details that make all the difference. It’s the receiver who determines what is reinforcing, and that’s just as true of people as of dogs. Choosing the best reinforcement takes careful consideration and thoughtfulness, but it’s worth it. For me, there is little that can even begin to compete with chocolate as a reinforcer, just as real meat is usually the highest quality reinforcement for the average dog.

What is the very best possible reinforcement for your dog?

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life