When I’m training the dogs, I very often use food as a reward for good behavior. Most dogs are quite happy and eager to work for food. As well, dog treats or kibble are easy to deliver and can be consumed quickly by the dog. However, sometimes food is not quite so interesting and there is something else that the dog would really like to have. Maybe this is getting to chase after a squirrel, getting a good scratch on the back, a drink of water on a hot summer day, curling up in the sun to take a nap, seeing a favorite doggie friend, or any other number of things.
Sometimes when training, a dog is distracted, unfocused, or not listening because one of these other things is much more interesting and exciting than the food treats that the trainer is trying to use to reinforce behavior. This can be incredibly frustrating for the trainer!
When training, I try to figure out The Thing The Dog Most Wants At This Moment. If it’s food, great, and off we go with training. If it’s not food, I’ll try to figure out how this wonderful thing can be incorporated into my training plan. Rather than fighting to keep the dog’s focus on me, I’ll see if I can find a way to use what the dog wants to reward the behavior I want. This sometimes takes a lot of creativity and sometimes isn’t possible, but when it is possible, it can be a lot of fun!
Recently, I was walking a young terrier mix that belongs to one of my training clients. All of a sudden, she spotted a wonderful bunny. The bunny rabbit was up in someone’s front yard, probably about 20 feet away from us. It was sitting quietly in the yard, munching on some grass. It also was far enough away that the dog was super interested, but not completely overwhelmed by her interest.
I let her stare at the bunny for a bit and then decided it was time to move on. However, she did not want to move on. At this moment, with the bunny in the yard in front of us, the treats and I were no longer interesting at all. Since the bunny was much, much more interesting than the treats, we played a game with the bunny.
I would start walking away and call to her and encourage her to come with me. The first time we did this, she did not want to leave the bunny at all!
She eventually came with me, but all of her focus and attention was on the bunny and she kept stealing backward glances at him. As we walked down the street, I waited for the moment when she shifted her focus and attention back onto me. When she did, we made a quick u-turn and went back to the yard so we could stare some more at the bunny. (If you look closely at the picture, you’ll be able to see the bunny at the very top of the image.)
As we did this a handful more times, I could see the little wheels turning in her brain… “hmmm, this is pretty interesting,” I think she was thinking. It didn’t take long before she figured out that when I said “Let’s go,” that if she quickly came walking with me and focused on me for a few seconds, that she’d get to go back and get another look at that bunny.
So, we were able to use “going back and looking at the bunny” as a reward for leaving the bunny. This worked well because this little dog already has a good “Come” and good leash walking skills and because we were at the right distance where she was quite interested in the bunny, but could still focus just a bit on me.
(Note: No bunnies were harmed during this training session! In fact, the bunny munched on his bits of grass the whole time and didn’t pay much attention to us at all. Also as we went about this training session, the little dog became more focused on me and less interested in the bunny. If the reverse had happened, and she had become increasingly more interested in the bunny, we would have discontinued this and figured out a different training plan!)
How do you incorporate different or unusual reinforcers into your training sessions?