dog being fed a treatGood training is about getting the most reliable behavior in the least amount of time without unwanted side effects. In other words, it’s all about efficiency. “Work smarter, not harder,” that’s my free-time-loving philosophy. While my ego would like to think that my dog will work hard learning new things just to please me, my dog has another opinion on the matter. She will work hard learning new things if it is worth her while. I’m supposed to be the one with the big brain, so it’s up to me to figure out what genuinely motivates her to keep learning what I want her to learn.

While it is backed up by reams and reams of behavior research, it’s also plain common sense that behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated. If it is repeated, we say the behavior is reinforced. The learning stage of a heel/down/stay/etc. behavior should include a continuous high rate of reinforcement. Basically, we want to keep the dog motivated to stay with us in our learning game by rewarding him every single time he performs a specific small step on the way to the finished behavior.

For example, if you are teaching a heel, one of your small steps will probably be to mark your dog for every footstep she takes with you and pay her with a bit of food. Step-mark-pay, step-mark-pay, step-mark-pay. You’ve been smart enough to give her an easily achievable goal and keep her interest with frequent, well-timed pay-offs. You’ve been clear enough that she knows what you want and you can now move on to the next achievable goal in the process. With reinforcement, you are building a strong foundation that is sticking in her brain. And you’re shoveling a heck of a lot of food bits into her mouth.

Why food specifically? It’s a biologically hardwired primary reinforcer (food, water, shelter, sex, control) dogs already deisire. And it’s easy! See my free-time-loving philosophy above. The dog is the one who decides what’s rewarding, and that is usually food. The available variety of food is so wide that you can have “medium value” and “high value” rewards (value determined by the dog, of course) in your training bag. When one flavor becomes boring, you can switch to a different one. Most foods can be cut into tiny pieces that are big enough to taste, but small enough to quickly chew and swallow so we can move on. Most foods are easily prepared or purchased and most are easily portable.

Toys can be used as rewards, but with the additional time required between trials, you can forget about the efficiency of a high rate of reinforcement. Praise can be used on certain dogs, but it’s often not as rewarding as we think it is. If your dog moves away from your touch or stiffens up, or loses interest in the game, physical and/or verbal praise is NOT a reward.

The healthy dog who is labeled “not food motivated” is indeed motivated by food. She’s gotta eat to survive, right? That’s motivation. If she is not too stressed or distracted to take food in the first place, the next most likely reason for food refusal is that she simply doesn’t like what’s being offered. Maybe she likes it fine for free or at home, but not enough to work for it or care about it in another environment. Let her sample a range of foods and note her responses. Keep at it until you find a few food treats that strike her fancy. She may not be motivated by dry biscuits, but she may turn somersaults for baked liver.

Okay, so what can you use for food rewards? Ah, that’s the next post. Stay tuned for treat tips!

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