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You Don't Work for Free, So Why Should Your Dog?

“When can we stop using food?”

This may be one of the most common question I receive from clients as a dog trainer who uses only positive reinforcement. Sometimes I hear this question as early as the first session, or even during the initial consultation. And I usually respond to this with “How long would you continue to show up to your job if you weren’t getting paid?” This usually makes the point pretty clearly. We don’t work for free, so why do we expect our dogs to?

In the old paradigm of dog guardianship, most people viewed their dogs as property and felt their dog should be implicitly obedient because they wanted to make their owner happy. However, decades of research have shed some light on how our canine companions’ brains actually work. They don’t actually have a concept of good or bad, and they don’t have an internal moral compass guiding them to perform trivial behaviors like sit or down to please us. They simply perform whatever behavior has historically worked for them to get their needs met or access something they want. Reinforcement drives behavior, and our dogs decide what they find reinforcing for themselves, not us.

For most dogs food is a strong primary reinforcer, but others may be more motivated by play, social interactions, or engaging with their environment. No matter what your dog prefers the science is the same: what we reinforce we are likely to see more of. Tapping into what motivates your dog is the key to gaining momentum with your training. However, I am a practical person and I like simple solutions. While I may have an array of options that my dog will work for often times a small treat is the easiest and safest way for me to reinforce their behavior. Especially when we’re out in public and we might not be able to play our favorite games like tug or chase.

Besides a “well behaved” dog, there are other benefits to consistent reinforcement in your training. If you are consistently predicting good things for your dog, the bond between you will be stronger. Additionally, dogs who are consistently rewarded for good behavior will be more confident to try new things keeps their brain engaged in the learning process. So after reading this you are still interested in finding alternate ways to reinforce your dog’s good behavior here are some tips.

  1. Don’t fade treats before your dog has a strong knowledge of the behavior.

When I say strong knowledge what I mean is, would you bet money that if you asked your dog to lay down he would do it? If you wouldn’t bet $100 that your dog would perform the behavior then you’re not ready to fade the food. Keep working on it until you feel certain that your dog knows that cue backwards, forwards inside and out.

2. Create behavior chains to keep your pup's skills strong

A behavior chain is when we ask our dog to perform a series of behaviors they know very well to keep them fresh. A common behavior chain might be “sit, down, stand” or something similar. When creating a chain you will only reinforce the last behavior so you end up using less food overall. This is a great way to keep those cues fresh for your pup.

3. Experiment with reinforcers to see what else your dog likes.

Without asking your dog to do anything you can offer them access to different reinforcement options and see what they choose. If you put a piece of hot dog in one closed fist and a piece of kibble in the other which do they prefer? And given the choice between a tug toy and a stuffy with a squeaker what do they choose? Take notes and repeat your experiment for accuracy. This will help you learn what your dogs preferred reinforcers are and you can start utilize different options for training.

4. Never recall your dog without rewarding them

Recall is your dogs life insurance and I believe it is the most important skill any dog will ever learn. It can save their lives. And because a strong recall is important to me, I never call a dog and don’t pay them. If your dog starts to learn that when they get called it could mean the fun is over for them, or it’s just kind of boring they will start to ignore your recall cue in favor of whatever else in the environment they find interesting. I’ve seen it countless times and it can be really dangerous if your dog is in an open space or near a busy road. Do not experiment with this one, and using your dog’s highest value reinforcement is recommended.

In conclusion, reinforcing your dog’s good behavior isn’t a one time effort; it’s a lifelong journey. Building a consistent reinforcement history with your dog has many benefits including a stronger bond, a more confident learner and more desirable behaviors. You can use a wide array of rewards for your dogs other than food, but ultimately your dog decides what motivates them. Remember, dogs are pragmatic amoral beings. They do not do things because they are “right” or “wrong”, they just do what works. So if you are expecting for your dog to perform a behavior because it makes you happy, you will likely be disappointed.

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