Crack, Not Crackers: Choosing the right reinforcer

Lucy's latest trick

Photo by Phillip Bump | Flickr

Recently, I was chatting with a friend whose dog Grace is a goofy, floppy lab mix. She’s well-behaved but goes bonkers when she sees other dogs in the park. It’s friendly but intense: She leaps and lunges and yips until she pulls her way to the other dog.

“It’s the craziest thing,” Grace’s person told me. “She loves food, but I hold cookies under her nose to distract her from dogs and she doesn’t eat them!”

They’re the same cookies that Grace gets at home, in her puzzle toy, and for backyard training. Those cookies aren’t valuable enough when faced with other dogs.

When you train using positive reinforcement, choosing the right reward sets your dog up for success. For some dogs, an energetic tug on a rope serves as a reinforcer. Others work for praise, while still others won’t respond for less than a filet.

Experiment with a variety of rewards to figure out what works for your pup. But here’s the trick: You need several tiers of reinforcement, not just a single high-value reward.

For example, Grace works for her cookies when they’re training in the backyard. There are few distractions, no new dogs to meet, and the cookies are enough. Step foot in the park, and Grace’s person needs to utilize a higher-value reward, like warmed-up hot dogs, cheese, liver, or boiled chicken.

As you train with your dog over the next few days, keep a list of what treats work where. Perhaps your pup is happy to train with her kibble on walks around the neighborhood, but she refuses it at the vet. Bring an arsenal of possibilities to figure out what food she will take and keep notes. Over time, you’ll discover the best reinforcement for every situation.

My dog Lucas is a fearful, dog-reactive guy, so I have three tiers of reinforcement for him.

The first is our range of reinforcement when we’re working at home. A portion of his dinner kibble, chopped veggies (carrots, cucumbers, and sweet potato), and soft dog treats work well in this safe setting. These treats are low-value to him. He’ll work for them when he’s safe and comfortable but wouldn’t take any of them if we stepped into the park.

The second tier is for the park. This is a set that has a higher value to him, like hot dogs, slices of deli cheese, freeze-dried liver, and food rolls. We can work with these rewards with dogs at a distance and he remains focused.

Our third tier is the highest value reinforcer. When training around other dogs, or on trips to the vet, we have a single option: canned spray cheese. It took trial-and-error over many sessions, testing everything from steak to peanut butter to lamb, until we honed in on this solution. It is the single thing he will take in the face of intense stress, so it’s reserved only for those times. If we used the spray cheese in the backyard, chances are it would lose its effectiveness. Saving it for the most stressful situations allows it to stay novel and high-value.

Conversely, my dog Emmett will work anywhere for praise and, perhaps, a bit of kibble. It’s all about figuring out what works best where for your dog.

Grace’s person spent a few days with a stuffed treat pouch trying to figure the right option for Grace, and it turned out that she could be deterred from her boisterous reaction to other dogs with chicken or a quick round of chasing a tennis ball.

What works for your dog? Do you have distinct tiers of lower to higher value rewards?


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Positively Expert: Maggie Marton

Maggie Marton is an award-winning pet journalist who focuses on the animal-human bond in her writing and her advocacy. She is a freelance writer and the founder of the popular dog blog "Oh My Dog!" She is also the author of "Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup."


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