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The Power of Reinforcement

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Using your dog's natural behaviours to train him

The first step is to identify what your dog finds naturally motivating.

Everything in training comes down to motivation, and motivation comes down to finding the reinforcer that your dog wants.

The difficulty is that not all dogs want the same thing, and many of the things your dog wants will be incompatible with what you want him to do!

When someone says their dog lacks motivation, what they mean is that their dog lacks the motivation for the things they want their dog to do.

So what does your dog's list look like?

Make a list of 10 things and then prioritise them

Here are examples of things that might be on your list

  • Playing with other dogs

  • Sniffing around

  • Chasing rabbits

  • Playing fetch

  • Swimming

  • Running free

  • Food

  • Praise

  • Physical affection

  • Playing tug

  • Playing with a ball on their own

  • Hide and seek with you

  • Getting affection from other people

  • Digging in the sand

  • Catching frisbee

If your dog has a strong desire to do anything at all, then you will have an easy time training him. If however your dogs top desires are sleeping, then your task will be much harder. In these instances, take an honest look at your dogs weight (you should be able to see his ribs), and consult your vet about putting your dog on a diet.

Control of reinforcers

Now that you have a list of things your dog loves to do, you need to start controlling your dog's access to these activities. We need to make sure that the only way your dog can access these reinforcers is through you! Reinforcers such as food and toys are easy to control, because you have physical control of them.

Other reinforcers such as sniffing are much harder to control. The first thing you need to do is put sniffing on cue (see the equipment cues video), Ask your dog for a behaviour, then cue Go Sniff as a reinforcer.

For dogs who like to swim, setup a paddling pool in your garden and release your dog to go splash and swim after responding to a cue. If you put your dogs favourite reinforcers onto a cue, they will be less likely to go and do them off cue.

It is important that your dog never has free access to his top reinforcers unless you give him permission to do so. So you will need to use a long line to prevent your dog self reinforcing until he is trained. If your dog struggles to focus in a specific environment, you probably need to find a less distracting environment to start with.

If your dog likes physical contact and praise, make sure you aren't constantly touching your dog and chatting away when they aren't offering a behaviour.

Using reinforcers

Now that you know what your dog loves to do, and you have control of these activities, you can ask your dog to respond to a less preferred activity in exchange for engaging in a more preferred activity. i.e.

  • Sit to be released to Go Sniff

  • Walking to heel to Run Free

  • Responding to a chain of behaviours to play a game of tug

  • Come when called to go play with another dog

  • Respond to a Down cue before opening the back door to the garden

  • Respond to a Touch Hand cue before jumping in the lake

  • Taking a low value treat before running into the bushes to sniff

  • Responding to a Middle cue before greeting a favourite person

This will accomplish two goals.

First it teaches your dog that if he wants something, he can get it if he does something for you.

And second, by pairing these less preferred activities such as heeling, with more preferred activities such as playing with a ball, we can condition our dogs to feel just as good about walking to heel as he does about playing with a ball.

If your dog doesn't like food treats, you can pair a food treat in the same way (sit - treat - go sniff) will increase the value of food.

Not only will your dog therefore learn to love these less exciting activities, but your dog will now be more engaged with you, and will associate these good feelings with you too! Thus improving your relationship with your dog ten fold!

Teach your dog to play

Now you have laid a good foundation to train a variety of behaviours, if your dogs list of reinforcers includes playing games with you, you are probably making good progress. If play is not on your dog's list of reinforcers, you have some more work to do. Being able to use play as a reinforcer is essential if you want reliability and consistency from your dog, anywhere, anytime

If your dog plays with you well, you can take a small toy that easily fits in your pocket out on walks with you. You can use it to inject some enthusiasm into walking to heel, or break it out randomly to play a game of tug from time to time.

The end goal is that your dog will find hanging around with you motivating because you might break out into a play session at any time. And the chance of fun with you can be the best motivator for keeping your dog's attention.

If your dog doesn't play with toys, you can play with food in the same way, by throwing it, playing chase with it, tossing it for your dog to catch and so forth. Keeping the training sessions fun and interesting will stop your dog from giving up when he doesn't get a reinforcer when expected, and will keep him trying harder for each reinforcement because he never knows how the reinforcement will be delivered (think casino slot machines). Keep your dog on his toes so that your dog is in a constant state of excited, happy anticipation.

For support with your dog's training, contact our team anytime

Phone: 0800 222 9007

Adolescent Dogs offers modern, reward based dog training courses. Offering a range of services to suit all budgets, including their Online Academy, Classes in Godalming, One to one lessons, and their Residential Dog Training UK wide.

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