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.
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.
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!