Training with positive reinforcement has one really important requirement- in order to change behavior you have to be able to provide a reward that is reinforcing to the dog.  By definition, a reinforcement is something that increases behavior, so if your reward isn’t important enough to the dog to have an impact on his behavior, it isn’t a reinforcement.

This seems simple enough and there are lots of dogs in the world who are happy to work for a wide variety of reinforcers.  Where things get complicated is when you dog’s list of potential reinforcers is short and/ or contains things that aren’t socially or ethically appropriate to use as a reward in training.  Often “hard to train” dogs or breeds have preferred reinforcers that are simply less usable as training rewards.  For example, Elf the Golden Retriever puppy might consider her top 5 rewards to be (1) meat (2) fetching toys (3) training treats (4) tugging on toys (5) and petting.  Wally the PBGV might have a list that is more like (1) bitches in standing heat (2) chasing live rabbits (3) sniffing bitches in the hopes that they will come into heat soon (4) meat (5) rolling in disgusting things.  With Elf, this list gives me 5 rewards that are completely user-friendly for training different tasks in different environments.  With Wally, I have the ability to realistically use only #4 of his top 5 rewards.  This doesn’t make training impossible, it just means that I have to plan things differently.

As dog trainers, we tend to put a lot of rules into how we reward dogs.  I’ve been in the sport long enough to remember when using food was considered cheating (funny how few non-traditional breeds did obedience then) and to be told that playing tug would cause my dog to become aggressive and kill me in my sleep.  Actually, I still hear those things today.  With a dog who has a long list of reinforcers, it’s easy to say you must always tug with intensity, never missing the toy and getting my hand, and never re-gripping.  You might also say that ever thrown toy must be returned promptly to my hand.  Training like this can be very pretty to watch when done with the right kind of dog, but can also be really depressing when you are made to feel like structured play with lots of rules is the only way to reward a dog.  I think this can sometimes be why owners of less traditional dogs might be drawn to less dog friendly methods, because they feel that reward based training is only for easy to reward dogs.

Here’s my challenge for those of you reading this who have dogs with a reinforcement list that looks more like Wally’s than Elf’s- break some rules and invent games that work for you and your dog.  Here are some ideas:

  • Throw cookies!  Use a cue like “get it” to give your dog permission to eat off the floor if you are worried about that.  Toys are popular rewards in sports like agility because they encourage motion, but there are other ways to do that.
  • Tug with food items or food stuffed items.  Any tugging is good- don’t panic over things like re-gripping.  Let the dog win and claim the prize most of the time.  I don’t advocateletting your dog hurt you, but on the rare occasion that Salsa feels brave enough to tug in public, I don’t ever get on her case if she misses the toy and teeth touch my hand.  If she didn’t have a soft mouth, I could get a longer toy.
  • Even regular treats can be more exciting if they are delivered in a remote treat dispenser like a Pet Tutor.
  • Fetching is not appealing to every dog, but maybe chasing is.  I have given myself permission to throw a ball as a reward for Gromit after an agility run in practice.  He rarely brings it back, but always chases it at full speed and then runs back to me at full speed for cookies.  Anything that connects full speed to the sport of agility for a PBGV is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.  For him, the chase is the reward and I’m good with that.  (Maybe I should teach Elf to clean up the balls at the end of practice……)

If you have another non-traditional reward, please share it in the comments!