Successful positive reinforcement training hinges on the ability of the trainer to select appropriate and desirable reinforcement. Here are some guidelines you may find helpful in selecting reinforcement for various activities:
- Are you training a new behavior or working on proofing a known behavior? If you are training a new behavior, a high Rate of Reinforcement will be your best bet. For this, choose soft, small, and smelly (the 3 S’s!) training treats. Crunchy treats, like biscuits (which are way too huge to be practical as regular training treats) or kibble, will leave your dog spending “too much time chewing and not enough time doing!”
- What type of surface are you training on? Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not absolutely colorblind in that they do not see in black and white. They are, however, like many people, red/green colorblind. This means that your lovely hot dogs, roast beef, bits of raw hamburger, or whatever you like to use with a reddish tinge, may be exceptionally difficult for your dog to see when tossed on green grass. If you will be rewarding the dog on the ground at all, it’s a good idea to select a treat which provides visual contrast with the surface your working on. If you’re working on grass, bits of cheese, turkey, or chicken which are light in color may be your best bet.
- What type of training are you doing? If you are doing classical conditioning, you may want to be able to provide the dog with continuous reinforcement over an extended period of time. In this case, a food tube, stuffed with liverwurst, canned dog food, peanut butter, cottage cheese, etc., will allow you to feed without interruption (or, you can use the somewhat less elegant method of cramming a large fistwad of turkey in your hand and “making a Kong” from your hand, just letting bits stick out of the bottom of your fist for your dog to lick). If you are training a toy dog to walk in heel position and want to reinforce the dog while your body is straight and upright, you may want to choose a treat which will fall at your heel without bouncing and rolling around, sandwich meat often makes a great treat for this while treats like cheerios, cut up food roll, etc., can do a lot of bouncing and significantly slow down your rate of reinforcement (RoR). There are other times when you may decide you want a treat to roll or bounce, sending a dog away from a target or other object. In Nosework class, you will want very stinky treats, things which smell garlicky, tripey, and otherwise assault your own nose while tantalizing your dog’s nose!
- What type of environment are you training in? Kibble may be a potent reinforcer at home but may not suffice to get your dog’s attention in your training classes. The reinforcement you select should correlate with the distraction level in the environment: more distracting environments = better stuff. Remember, you are competing with the hydrant 7,000 dogs have peed on for your dog’s attention; that’s no small task!
- What is your dog’s current level of training? In some exercises, like teaching “leave it,” we start a rookie dog out with a low value treat – a dog should learn how to leave a cheerio before he is expected to leave alone a freshly cooked steak. In other exercises, you may choose to use a high value reinforcement to jump start the behavior and then, as your dog attains fluency and understanding, work your way down the reinforcement spectrum.
- Does your dog need to be revved up or calmed down? If you want to create excitement, use exciting reinforcement! Tug toys, squirrel chases, really high value, stinky, delicious food, squeaky toys, whatever your dog goes bonkers over. If, on the other hand, you’re working on a behavior like “settle on a mat” where you need your dog to mellow out a bit, you may adjust your reinforcement selection accordingly – lower valued food rewards, quiet, slow praise, massage, etc., may be more appropriate.
- What does your dog want RIGHT NOW? We use food a lot initially to teach new behaviors because it allows us to establish a high RoR. Good training will involve using life rewards to maintain behaviors – opportunities to chase squirrels, sniff things, greet new people, dogs, or known friends, go for walks, etc. Whatever it is that your dog likes, he can earn it through good behavior. (Imagine how long it would take to put a new behavior on cue if you relied on a troop of compliant squirrels awaiting your cue to run to the nearest tree?) Food is only one nation within the world of reinforcement.
- Is your dog getting enough treat variety? Sometimes a client in class has a dog that is suddenly, after a number of successful classes, struggling to focus. “What are you using for treats?” I ask. “Hot dogs,” says the client. “What did you use last week?” “Hot dogs.” “What are you using at home?” “Hot dogs.” First, this is way too many unhealthy hot dogs, and second, this dog is getting bored! Continuously mixing up your reinforcement offerings will keep training exciting and interesting for your dog. Predictability is B-O-R-I-N-G!
- Are you finding balance in your treat selection and amounts? First, treats should be relatively small (smaller than a piece of kibble, usually) and your dog’s regular rations of food must be reduced to make up for any treats you include in the diet. Positive training doesn’t create fat dogs, overfeeding does. I admit that sometimes I use treats which don’t have the healthiest ingredients – liverwurst, pepperoni, EZcheese, greasy meatballs, the new favorite, Lebanon Bologna, and yes, even fast-food items have all found their way into my treat bag and later, my dog’s bellies. I don’t feel bad about these occasional indulgences because 90% of my dog’s diet is a well-constructed raw diet consisting of human grade meat, appropriate supplements, and all that yummy goodness. All of my dogs’ food and treats are made, manufactured, and sourced in the U.S. or Canada, without exception! Of the approximate 10% of my dog’s diet that consists of “treats,” an estimated 8+% is dedicated to “healthy treats” – treats with no or few additives and human grade ingredients. High quality canned dog foods, Red Barn food rolls (which are high value for many dogs, have great ingredients, and are nutritionally complete as a dog food!) bits of boiled or baked chicken, tuna fish, licks of baby food, organic yogurt, cottage cheese. So yeah, maybe 2% of my dogs’ diet consists of junk – if only I could say the same for my own!