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If you’ve ever had a dog that lives for food, you will know how beneficial this can be in positive dog training. But if your dog turns his or her nose up when presented with a tasty morsel, don’t despair! Positive reinforcement comes in many shapes and sizes, the key is in finding the best motivator for your dog. In this article, we explore the different types of motivators and how you can incorporate these into your next training session.
Let’s stick with food as a reinforcer for a minute
Before completely ruling out food as a reinforcer for your dog, consider the type of food you are presenting your dog with.
We can split food rewards into three categories based on their value to your dog. Low value rewards are considered those that your dog receives on a regular basis, for example their usual kibble. Medium value rewards include specific training treats that you can purchase in pet shops. High value rewards for dogs tend to be associated with human grade food; chicken, cheese, liver etc. The smellier the better! If the food will go off if you were to leave it out of the fridge, you know you’re on the right track!
Of course, every dog is unique; what may be classed as a high reward for one dog may be low to another…so try different food types before ruling out food as a reinforcer entirely.
Another thing to consider with food rewards is how much you’re feeding your dog at meal times, along side the timing of your training session. Food is less likely to act as a motivator when your dog is satiated so see if holding a training session a couple of hours after mealtimes makes food more appealing to them. You may also want to consider cutting the amount of food you give to your dog at mealtimes and using the remaining allowance for reward training throughout the day.
Tried all of the above and your dog still snuffs your offer of food?! Let’s move on…
Even the most tender fillet steak isn’t going to cut it for some dogs. And that’s okay! There are other ways to motivate your dog to learn through positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcers include anything that your dog enjoys doing or finds rewarding. We have worked with dogs who love nothing more than chasing water out of a hosepipe, those who live for belly rubs and others who go mad for a game of tug of war with an old t-shirt. When you think about all the things your dog loves to do, you are guaranteed to be able to identify something they love which can be incorporated into a training session. Here we consider some alternatives to food reinforcers.
Alternatives to food as a reinforcement in dog training
Motivators for dogs that love to chase
If you own a dog with a strong innate ‘chase’ prey drive such as a greyhound, springer spaniel or airedale terrier, you may find that you can use this desire to chase to your advantage in training. In fact, it might be so simple as needing to throw a piece of food for your dog to chase after, rather than simply holding it out for them! If this still doesn’t do the trick, think about ways in which you can turn your training into a game which ends with a ball or frisbee being thrown. Or perhaps you’re the moving target that your dog can chase after when they have nailed their down stay! Just be sure not to chase after your dog as you may find this leads to negative side effects.
Motivators for dogs that love to dig
Anyone who’s ever owned a dachshund will know they have an insatiable desire to dig! And it’s not surprising, given that they were bred to burrow into the earth and catch badgers. But rather than digging up your prized flowerbed, consider creating a ‘digging pit’ out of a sturdy box filled with sand which your dog only gets access to when they have displayed the desirable behaviour you are looking for. You might want to hide their favourite toy or a tasty morsel at the bottom of it. It won’t take long before the sight of the ‘digging pit’ has your pooch standing for attention!
Motivators for dogs love to play
Does your dog love to play tug of war? Or maybe they have another favourite toy which you can save for training? If so, the next time your non-food motivated dog starts to amble back to you after you’ve delivered a return command, pull out the tug toy and have a good old game of tug of war. If coming back to you means they get to play their favourite game, it acts as a great reinforcer.
Motivators for dogs that love to sniff
Does your dog’s nose seem to be glued to the floor? This may well be the case if you’re the proud owner of a bloodhound or beagle. For these dogs, being presented with food may not be a strong motivator, however creating a situation where your dog has to sniff out the food could well be a game changer! Consider filling a shoebox with scrunched up paper and hiding pieces of food within it to act as a reward for learning something new. Alternatively, there are many toys available which encourage your dog to sniff out the treat. Or your dog might be just as satisfied with an old t-shirt to sniff while training!
Motivators for dogs that love water
Constantly find yourself reaching for your dog towel? Great! Let’s incorporate water into your training. Whether it’s access to a pond, river or the Sea, splashing around in a paddling pool or chasing the water from a hosepipe, if your dog learns that doing what you ask results in access to water and they’re excited by it, you’ve just found their motivator!
Motivators for dogs that love to shred
Have you noticed that your dog loves nothing more than peeling the green off a tennis ball? Yep, us too! If your dog has a strong desire to dissect, find toys that allow them to do this. Alternatively, you can’t go wrong with a cardboard box…just be sure to keep an eye on them to ensure they stop at the dissect stage and don’t go on to eat the cardboard.
If you’re reading this and still aren’t sure what you could use to motivate your dog to learn, challenge yourself with writing a list of twenty things your dog loves and see how any of these could be incorporated into training with your dog. You may need to get creative, but we’re certain that there’s a positive reinforcer for every dog.