Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What does your dog like?

Let’s do something different today. Grab a pen and a piece of paper, and list as many things as you can think of that your dog likes.

Why am I asking you to do this? Well, lately, I’ve been nursing a personal theory that the more things that you can list, the easier it will be for you to train your dog. I believe this is the case regardless of what training methods you use, but if you train primarily with positive reinforcement like I do, it’s vital that you know what motivates your dog.

In addition to having a large number of go-to rewards, you need to identify a wide variety of reinforcers, too. After all, one of the great criticisms of clicker training is that you won’t always have food treats available. Beyond that, in every discussion of clicker training, someone always says their dog isn’t motivated by food. Discussions of fading lures and intermittent reward schedules and finding good enough treats aside, I have to wonder if people aren’t missing the point. Food may be convenient for training, but it isn’t the only option. Granted, it’s a bit more complicated to use non-food rewards, but it can (and should) be done!

So today, let’s take that list of things our dogs like, and double them. (Why, yes, I am ambitious, thank you very much.) Because I like structure, let’s make three categories: food treats, interactive games and praise, and environmental rewards. Taking your initial list from above, fit each item into the appropriate slot.

Food Treats
If you’re like me, this is the easiest category to fill in. During my initial list-making, I had 13 separate foods, and that was without breaking “dog treats” down into the various brands and flavors I buy! I do think it’s important to list out all those things- some treats are obviously much tastier than others- but for the purposes of this exercise, I was willing to lump them all together.

Where I really wanted to expand my food horizons, though, was by looking at each entry, and seeing if there were any related but different things. By doing so, “chips” spawned two extra items: popcorn and crackers. I had listed watermelon, and realized that Maisy likes other fruits, too, like apples and strawberries. I was able to do the same thing with vegetables. And, as proof that my mind works in strange ways, the entry “cheese” reminded me that Maisy also likes yogurt, ice cream, peanut butter, and baby food.

As you can see, I’m not afraid to use “people food” as a reward. In fact, I recently took a package of potato chips with me to a training session where I knew we were going to work on an especially difficult task. I wanted the payout to be equal to the effort, after all. As long as the food is safe, and as long as your dog isn’t obnoxious about begging for food, I see no problem with sharing my stuff.

Interactive Games and Praise
Interactions with people is also very reinforcing for many dogs. I initially had seven items on my list, and some of these things were obvious: Maisy loves going for walks, playing ball, and being allowed to meet new people. Expanding the list was a little harder than it was for the first one, though. However, once I quit thinking about what I use as training rewards, and simply considered what we do together, I was able to almost triple my list.

I started by thinking about our daily routine. What do we do together that she enjoys? Well, we like to play ball, and that was on my initial list, so I started to think about similar activities. She also likes to chase her stuffed toys, and even tug on them sometimes. Speaking of chasing, she likes to chase me, and while I’m thinking of it, running in general seems to be pretty fun for her. And, while we’re talking about play, I have to admit that we have a “bitey face” game that she just adores.

I also wake up with her in my arms almost every morning, so I know that she likes sleeping in bed with me. It also reminded me that, while she can be a bit sensitive about touch, she does enjoy the occasional belly rub, and she loves when I do TTouch on her ears.

Environmental Rewards
This last category is maybe the hardest, simply because we work so hard to limit our dogs’ access to the environment. We teach them not to sniff while we’re walking, we get upset if they roll in dead stuff, and digging in our gardens or eating out of the trash? Don’t even mention it! But our dogs like those things, so regardless of whether they are acceptable behaviors or not, it’s worth thinking about.

I had five entries in this category initially, and was able to increase it quite a bit. Think about what your dog does when you aren’t actively engaged with her. Maisy loves to play with our cat, Malcolm (and thankfully, he loves to play back).

(Hilarious picture aside, check out this video.)

Similarly, think about which behaviors your dog exhibits that you actively work to stop. Do you have a chewer? A barker? A digger? I have my house set up so that Maisy can’t reach the litter boxes. Disgusting as it is, eating poop ranks high on her list of likes.

Consider your dog’s instincts, too. Maisy is a Corgi mix, which means chasing chickens and critters is high on her list of enjoyable activities. Labs tend to enjoy swimming, and Beagles are probably going to enjoy sniffing quite a bit. Of course, you will need to evaluate whether a particular breed tendency is true for your dog, but it will give you a good starting point.

Okay, look at your list again. Have you doubled it? Mine went from 25 items to 54 (and I've thought of several more while writing this post), which means I have effectively doubled my ability to train Maisy. Naturally, some of the things we listed will be more practical for training rewards than others, but don’t worry about that for now. Just spend some time learning what your dog finds reinforcing. We’ll figure out if- and how- we can use those things later.

Alright, I'm ready: tell me a couple of things your dog likes from each category!


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I agree with your assessment that having a dog who likes a wide variety of reinforcers is easier to train. I think that dogs commonly referred to as "stubborn" are really just dogs that don't have as long of a list of reinforcers or those who are motivated by things we don' generally think about using in training.

I love that Vito loves pretty much everything. He likes most foods, loves toys (especially balls), loves to tug, gets excited easily if I tease him, likes to talk, etc. The only issue with that is he can easily get too over the top so I have to be careful in choosing my rewards wisely.

Lance likes food. Any food, except most vegetables. But since he loves food so much it's still very easily to motivate him. This has made it harder though for the ring where I can't have food so I have been trying to use Lance's favorite tricks in the ring as a reward. I think it's helped him a lot and likely relieves some stress as well. Other things Lance likes is to run which is why I throw a ton of treats for him in training. He loves the game of "chase me" which I used to do for him when I worked at Petsmart when the store closed, but haven't done a ton of since. I sometimes use sniffing as a reward and sometimes barking. He does not care for petting at all, really prefers not to be touched although he is getting a bit cuddlier as he gets older.

Crystal said...

Oh, Laura, I didn't even think about learned behaviors being reinforcing, but now that you mention it, yes! Tricks can be super awesome for some dogs. I can't think of any that Maisy absolutely loves, but now I'm going to have to pay attention and see if there are any.

Bea said...

Another good post! I'm lucky with Patches--he too loves a wide variety of foods, toys and games. (One of his stranger rewards is being allowed to shred paper bags and boxes.) He doesn't like being petted when he's "working". And just tolerates petting from strangers. Now that we've made huge lists of our dogs likes, what about listing distractions? The rewards have to be paired with what distractions they will overcome. In one class we took, the instructor had us rate distractions from 1 to 10--10 being most distracting. With P. I haven't found any reward that will trump BUNNIES. The young ones (foolishly or fiendishly?) frolic in plain view in our favorite park. I thought that fetch (his most favorite game--he's almost BC intense about it)would distract P., and he was playing, but as soon as I released him to practice some tricks, he made a bee line to where he'd last seen them, slapped his nose to the ground and was gone! Had to grab the leash and stalk him.

Crystal said...

Bea, that is the next step: figuring out the value of each of those likes. Ear rubs are nice, but Maisy would rather run.

My challenge to you would be to to reward ignoring bunnies by allowing him to chase them... I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it's called Premack, and it's awesome... I'll have to write about that soon.

Lauren said...

A little late on adding to this but Frodo's very favoritest reward is TREES! Well, more sniffing trees than anything. We have been Premacking trees because he thinks being allowed to sniff and mark trees is WAAAY more fun than any food treat.

Food is a close second. Being allowed on the couch, going for a walk, and getting in the car are also rewards.