“And The Most Powerful Reinforcer For Your Dog Is…”

At Doggie Adventures and Training our training methods are reward based which means we reward the desired behavior and either ignore or redirect the undesired behavior.  By definition behaviors that are rewarded will increase.  Some ways that we reward the desired behavior is with with food, toys, play, verbal praise, and more.  I find that 95% of the dogs that I work with prefer food over other forms of reinforcement.

dog with bone

Why does food work so well for most dogs?  In the early 1900’s Ivan Pavlov inadvertently discovered the power of food for dogs while trying to measure the amount of saliva a dog produced when they tasted meat powder.  He discovered that the dog would begin to salivate when Pavlov’s assistant would enter the room with the meat powder even before the powered was given to the dog.   The dog learned that the assistant had the powder thus creating a unconditioned response of salivating.  Pavlov later called this classical conditioning, which means in the example above pairing an unconditioned response (salivating) with a conditioned response (assistant walking in the room).

Food is a primary reinforcer for a dog, which means dogs need food to survive.  Mostdogs do not need to learn to like food, it’s intrinsic for the dog.  Thus making food a powerful reinforcer for a dog.

I recommend that owners use a variety of food when working with their dogs.  A low, medium, and high value reward treat.  A low value treat may be a dry milk bone or dog food (dry kibble).  A medium value treat may be a piece of beef jerky or carrot/ apple slice.  A high reward treat may be a piece of hot dog or steak.  I always prefer treats that are moist and can be broken into pea size pieces.  This will allow you to quickly reward your dog and move on with your training as opposed to giving your dog a dry crunchy treat which takes time to eat.

If I hear concerns from clients regarding using food while training it is the fear that the dog will only do the behavior for food or that they will always need to have treats with them.  When training a new behavior I recommend having food at all times.  Once your dog has a concept of the behavior you can start to fade the use of the food.  A good way to help a behavior to become strong is through random reinforcement. This means sometimes your dog does not get a treat or sometimes your dog might get 10 tiny treats in a row.  Think of the slot machines in Vegas, these are great examples of random reinforcement.  With random reinforcement your dog will work very hard in hopes to receive the 10 tiny treats.  Just like the eager gambler who pulls the slot machine handle one more time in hopes for their jackpot!

The mistake I see clients making is that they use food as a lure to get their dog to do a behavior.  A lure is where the dog can see the treat and sometimes taste and smell the treat.  As opposed to using the treat as a reward.  As a reward the food all of a sudden appears from nowhere.  If the dog is first trained with a lure such as training down or roll over, it is important to fade the lure as soon as possible and begin rewarding your dog for the behavior well done.

Tips for fading the use of your food lure:

  •  Have a strong behavior with using your lure before you start to fade the food.
  • Use your lure to ask for the behavior, as you have been doing, then reinforce from the opposite hand.
  • Remove the food lure.  Ask for the behavior.  Reinforce from the opposite hand.
  • Once your dog is reliable with step 3 begin randomly reinforcing your dog.

Tips for fading the use of your food prompt:

  •  If your dog has to see the treat in your hand, practice with food next to you on the counter or table where your dog cannot see it.  Ask your dog to do a behavior, when they do reinforce them with the food from the counter.
  • BE PATIENT, if they are use to seeing the food in your hand it may take a couple tries before they catch on.
  • Once they do not need to see the food in your hand randomly reinforce.

I can’t stress the power of random reinforcement.  If you become predictable in your reinforcement your dog may loose interest but if you keep your reward system fun, unpredictable, and worthwhile you will have a dog that is eager to please.

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