Reinforcement Tips

Reinforcement Matters!

It can be challenging to figure out what motivated your dog, but these simple tips can help. 

Keep in mind, all dogs are individuals with their own preferences and desires. We can't choose what our dogs will find reinforcing. Azul is often very hard to motivate so I've had to get really creative with what I use to reinforce the behaviors I want repeated.

FOOD is by far the most common reinforcement used in dog training. That's because it's the easiest thing we humans can deliver with good timing and mechanics. I use food to teach brand new skills in calm, low distraction environments. Then I'll continue to use the food as I generalize a skill in multiple environments. I always have a high value treat on me that I can pull out in an emergency such as something scary happens, my dog gets loose and recall is needed, or anything negative that I want to make positive.

TOYS are best for teaching dogs to think in higher arousal states, teaching concepts and reinforcing previously learned behaviors. Again, we have to look at what the dog loves; balls, tugs, frisbees, flirt poles, etc. It's really challenging to get the mechanics right for marking and using toy play when you first start training a new skill.

PLAY is direct interaction between human & dog, playing games that often involve lots of movement and encourages happy emotions including laughter in humans and goofy, wiggly, body movements in dogs. Play can include food & toys as secondary reinforcers, but it's the teamwork & connection that is most reinforcing. Hide-and-seek is a great game to teach recall and reinforce in a fun way for the dog.

There are many other things our dogs find reinforcing as well!

Outdoor environments provide many natural reinforcers including things to smell, things to chew on, places to move through, things to watch. Sometimes we get stuck on reinforcement is something that we give to our dogs but functional reinforcement is often more powerful. Functional reinforcement is anything that meets the dog's needs or wants. Running can easily be a functional reinforcement for many dogs, especially those who spend much of their lives on leashes. This is why movement puzzles can be very effective in advancing skills rather quickly.

Now let's look at a few rules or truths that come with reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement is used to tell dogs what behaviors to DO!  This is something we often forget when we get caught in reactionary training. Something happens, we react, and try to put a positive spin on things, but instead we end telling our dogs what NOT to Do and then trying to encourage them NOT to Do something by offering them a cookie instead. This can help us get out of a bad situation real quickly, but it isn't really training the dog what to do next time. Instead we need to focus our training on what TO Do. If we've reacted and got out of a situation fast, we need to make note of that and create a training plan that teaches our dogs what we want them to do in situations like that in the future. Let's live in DO LAND with reinforcement.

Dogs decide what is reinforcing and what is not!  While most dogs are reinforced by food, some dogs would rather anything else over food. We need to make sure we are listening to our dogs when they tell us what their favorite reinforcement is. It may not always be easy for us to fit in that reinforcement to our training plans, but we will accomplish a lot more if we figure out a way to use what they love. Sometimes this means building up behavior chains and habits that allow us to use that reinforcement more effectively. One of Azul's favorite reinforcements as an adolescent was chasing his flirt pole. I couldn't really carry that to the grocery store to reinforce good behaviors and SD tasks. So instead we built that into a routine of every time we came home from the grocery store we would play with the flirt pole. Having the reinforcer come 20-40 minutes after the right behavior is not easy to manage, especially during the training stages. We had to pair this with verbal communication that became the promise of something good to come later, then always follow that up with flirt pole fun. Play is often the most powerful reinforcer we have if we can learn to use it effectively.

Reinforcement Value must always be equal or higher value than the thing the dog wants to do in that moment! If a dog really wants to go smell that p-mail or the trail left by a cat and we offer them kibble to walk at our sides, we shouldn't be surprised when our dogs make the wrong choice and pull towards what they want. Often dogs will turn around to get the low value reinforcement that we are offering then re-engage in the pulling towards what they really want. I see this more in dogs that are real food motivated. They want the low value you are offering enough to disengage from what's distracting them but unless you are feeding them non-stop you can't keep their interest. In this situation we either need to use a higher value food reinforcer, play a game with our food reinforcer to make it more valuable, or figure out how to use what they want as the reinforcement for the behavior we want. Azul being a husky, has one of the hardest pull strengths I've ever worked with. This made adolescence hard as his desire had him pulling from one smell to another, then sometimes he'd get stuck on smell and not want to move as I walked passed him. Food meant nothing to him outside and smelling the environment was his top motivation. We learned that using a 8-10 ft leash helped us both enjoy walks a bit more that a 4-6 ft leash because Azul had more freedom to smell what he wanted faster and longer. If he pulled towards something or of we saw a distraction coming our way, I'd call Azul back into a heel for just long enough to get into leash range or let the distraction pass then immediately release Azul to go sniff. Since sniffing was his top reinforcement, I made sure that we took a good sniffy walk before we did any public access training during Azul's adolescent period. He could get his desire to sniff done outside and not need to do nearly as much sniffing inside. We need to listen when our dogs tell us what they really love because that's going to make our relationship and our training so much stronger.

Here are some reinforcement tips specifically for Service Dog Teams!

YES! It's OK to throw food for your dog as reinforcement! Many new handlers really struggle with this concept as its a common worry that if dogs eat food off the floor at home or during training sessions that they will also be tempted to eat food or other things on the floor in public. If we didn't condition this properly, it could be a challenge. But it's very easy to teach a dog to chase food with a owner given cue such as "Get It" or "Treat!" said in a happy voice. Conditioning a release cue to tell the dog that food is theirs paired with a leave it cue, lets them know when to chase food and when not to chase food. You can take it a step further and only allow them to eat food that you toss, preventing other friends & family members from tossing food to your SD if you feel the need to restrict it. But I've never worried about that. I train the release cue so heavily that my dog knows not to chase without hearing the cue and then I train my friends and family to use my release cue if I want them to be able to treat me dog.

YES! It's OK to reinforce your dog in public! Many handlers also seem to be in a hurry to fade out reinforcement in public places as fast as possible. If you've set up for success, you've heavily reinforced behaviors at home and generalized those behaviors in multiple environments before doing public access training which should mean that you don't need lots of reinforcement out in public. If you are still reinforcing every single sit, down, or heel then you probably shouldn't be doing public access training yet. However, if you are asking your dog to hold a down stay or settle on a mat in a new location such as the mall or a doctor's office, it's totally OK to reinforce that calm behavior by feeding treats to extend the behavior. This becomes a sticky situation when you are looking at restaurant training. 

Feeding dogs from the table is often frowned upon! But when is it OK? Often this is based on handler preference! I don't believe we should be feeding dogs food that we purchased at a restaurant to our SD's while they are tucked under the table. But I will feed my SDiT dog treats while they hold their position under a table, especially if a huge distraction is passing such as wait staff, a child that is pointing the dog out, another SD, etc. I had a waitress once drop a whole container of silverware right by our table. Most of the people around jumped at the clatter! But my SDiT stayed down because the second it happened I started popping high value dog jerky into their mouth and kept doing it until the commotion settled down. Since many people look at any feeding from the table as taboo, I'll take dog treats out of my treat bag and lay them on the table so anyone watching can tell that it's obviously dog food I'm using and not hiding food to sneak to my dog. Outside and in my home, my dogs can eat all the people food they love, always with a release cue and never with helping themselves to found treasures. As a handler, you have to do what feels right for you in these situations!

I hope you've enjoyed these tips on reinforcement.  If you would like to learn more about using reinforcement more effectively, check out my Yooper Paws blog.  Here are a few of my favorites: