Learner’s Choice: Effective Reinforcement

Have you ever wanted to use something as a reinforcer and found that you couldn’t; that this item just wasn’t reinforcing to your learner? Perhaps you were in an agility class full of tugging border collies and you felt like a failure because your sheltie didn’t want to tug. Or maybe you were in an obedience class with starving golden retrievers and found the work difficult because your border collie will eat, but not like THAT. What we do in these situations matters. By definition the reinforcers we choose must be reinforcing to the dog; it always the learner who decides what is reinforcing or punishing.

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Felix loves toys, food, and mud

Eat to live or live to eat: food is always a primary reinforcer 

All animals must eat to live. This puts food–particularly naturally-consumed foods–into the category of primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is something that the animal wants because of his basic nature; it does not need to be classically conditioned. So what about the dogs that don’t seem so hungry? Genetics certainly play a role here, we all know that some breeds will eat until they die and others might skip eating here and there and do just fine. If you need to use food to teach your dog something and he isn’t into what you’re offering, here are a few suggestions:

  • Rule out stress and arousal. A dog that is worked up or shut down will not eat. Period. Too many dogs will not eat ringside and are fine eating back at their crate; this is a problem and should be addressed, not simply worked around.
  • Use natural food items for the species you are training. A dog is a carnivorous scavenger. He eats everything but he prefers flesh. Organ meat is of special high regard; it is nutrient-dense and a total score for this species. If you need a dog to work with you, you need to make it worth his while. Beef heart, lamb liver, and rotisserie chicken have yet to fail me. It is no surprise to me that every.single.time. someone tells me their dog is “not food motivated” they are trying to use processed food (dog treats) or cereal (kibble) or other such nonsense. Or, the dog is over threshold. See the first bullet.
  • Check the dog’s history. We humans can really ruin things for ourselves. If your dog’s early experiences of food were that he isn’t allowed to have any of it, this might be your culprit. If you get stressed or angry because your dog won’t eat, that could be a reason your dog finds food unsafe when it’s associated with you. Most of all, we tend to present something really delicious and then do something really horrible. If the first time your dog sees salmon is the first time he has a bath or a veterinary exam–and he sees that salmon BEFOREHAND–you just did yourself a big disservice. A lot of dogs distrust food for this reason.
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I had to snap this photo of my student’s smart planning for her dog!

So, if you need your dog to work for food (and not everybody does), be sure food is always safe, always fun, always delicious. If your dog goes through a developmental stage where they don’t want to work too hard for food (most intact males go through a less-hungry phase because frankly, they are hungry for something else) don’t ask them to during that phase. Felix wasn’t a hungry puppy at first. He’d eat just fine but he didn’t problem-solve well for food early on. So, I always made it easy for him to win when food was involved, and I avoided food-related impulse control games. None of that lasted forever, and now he happily works for treats of all kinds, so long as his head is on his shoulders.

Are toys primary reinforcers? 

Here’s the thing you guys–yes, I’m looking at anyone who has lamented that their dog just won’t play–toys are secondary reinforcers. They require conditioning. The primary reinforcer involved for most toys is actually play. Dogs need play, and the types of play they like mimic the four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and, well, reproduction. These are the basic drives that help species survive, and play is thought to be a primer for acting on these drives successfully. Dogs are neotenous; part of their specific evolution is that they retain juvenile traits throughout life. Play is one of those traits; they never stop playing the four Fs. Interestingly, those “non-food-motivated” dogs that are nuts about toys are engaging the the feeding F when they play. Tug is a feeding behavior–it mimics ripping and shredding of a carcass. Chasing a ball is a feeding behavior–it mimics chasing down prey. A lot of personal play is fighting behavior, and tug for some dogs crosses into that fighting drive. The key is to be sure you are allowing your dog to express one of the Fs in play–we humans often really don’t do well at playing like a dog. If your dog doesn’t like toys it is because they do not associate toys with an F. Guess who’s job it is to help them get there? You guessed it! The trainer! Good news is, there is a lot of good information out now about how to play more effectively with your dog. In the meantime–don’t push it. Don’t stress out about forcing play on your dog, and don’t try to use something your dog doesn’t like as a reinforcer.

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What I see as I head out to my training yard–options are good! 

Picking battles 

In the end, we could all just use reinforcers our dogs like and not stress too much about “making” them like other things. Fostering the ideal arousal state and responsiveness is really where your concerns should lie; pick the reinforcer that does that for you. If I need a precise reinforcer that does not get my dog too high, I use food. If I need a convenient reinforcer that keeps my dog up and moving, I use toys. I get to use both because I foster a desire for both (more accurately I consciously do not squash the dog’s natural desire for either) from the beginning. Being able to utilize a variety of reinforcers helps me be an efficient trainer, but it is not actually a necessity. Recognizing what is rewarding to your dog is the necessity.