Does this look like a dog who wants to do... well, anything except go inside?
In my last entry on training with reinforcement, I talked about using choosing the right value of reward for the situation. There were several great comments about what types of reinforcers work for people’s dogs, and in what circumstances. I loved these comments because I really believe that in order to use reinforcement well, you need to play matchmaker. Today, I want to talk about three circumstances that might cause you to choose one type of reinforcement over another.
Circumstance #1: Your dog’s mood and arousal level.
Good training always takes the dog’s mood and arousal level into account. How does this effect which reinforcer you use? Well, you need to know how various reinforcers affect your dog. In general, play and movement tend to be exciting and arousing. Food is usually calming. Verbal praise and petting or other physical rewards can go either way- it depends on your dog, and how you do it.
So, if your dog is looking bored and uninterested, perhaps a high-intensity reward would help pep him up. Maisy hates too much repetition, and even the best food in the world won’t help her enjoy it more. However, if I mix it up, and reward a good response with a game of chase or ball instead, she’s much more enthusiastic about the exercise.
On the flip side, if she is overly-aroused, adding more intensity is the last thing I want to do. In those cases, I typically give her food treats instead. Foods of medium value seem to work best- if it’s too good of a treat, she sort of loses her mind. (As a side note, I’ve found that the clicker tends to amp her up, so if she’s too aroused, I use a verbal marker instead.)
For reactive dogs, I think it’s vitally important to know which reinforcers help them calm down, and which amp them up. For Maisy, if she was approaching her threshold and was just on the verge of reacting, but still chose to look at me (or look away, or sit down, or whatever amazingly good behavior she offered), it would be throwing fuel on the fire if I threw here tennis ball. It would just excite her more, and what she needs most in that moment is to calm down.
Circumstance #2: Your dog’s physical state.
Like gauging your dog’s mood, his physical state matters, too. Anyone with a small dog knows that long training sessions can be difficult- they just get full so fast! In the same way that my favorite foods sound completely unappetizing after Thanksgiving Dinner, our dogs just aren’t going to find even the tastiest morsel all that tempting when they’re already stuffed.
Likewise, if our dogs are getting physically tired, chasing after a tennis ball isn’t going to be that much fun. No matter how much I love doing something, like horseback riding, after hours in the saddle, I can guarantee you that getting out of that saddle is going to be more desirable to me than riding another mile. Now, everyone’s tolerance for an activity is going to be different- I might want to get off the horse sooner than you do- but at some point, you’ll get tired, too.
The only word of caution here is with instinctual behaviors. Since they are, by definition, instinctual, a dog is much more likely to continue to engage in the activity when they’re tired. For example, even when she’s panting and flopped out on her side in exhaustion, Maisy will always chase a thrown tennis ball. You need to use a certain amount of common sense along with evaluating the dog’s response.
Circumstance #3: Environmental considerations.
Finally, it’s important to consider the environment you and your dog are in when choosing a reinforcer. What your dog finds reinforcing may change based on the environment you’re in.
This is especially true when it comes to the weather. For example, my dog loves getting squirted in the face with water, and I know she’s not alone in her love of water games. While this can make a great reinforcer in the summer, it’s not so pleasurable during a Minnesota winter! (This holds true for indoor temperatures, too, of course.) Her favorite game- playing ball- isn’t as fun when it’s extremely hot or extremely cold. Frozen pieces of meat (or even just ice cubes) may make a great summer treat, but they aren’t so appealing in the winter. I’m sure you guys can think of lots of other examples.
Another environmental consideration is what’s going on in the environment. This is a big topic- so big that I’ll write a separate post on it alone- but basically, if there is something in the environment that your dog really wants to get, or really wants to get away from, you can probably use that as a reinforcer, too.
So, what kind of matchmaking do you do with your dog? Have you found that some rewards work better at one time than another? If so, why do you think that is? And more importantly, have you figured out how to use that to your advantage? I’d love to hear about your experiences!