The World is Your Reinforcer


Want a dog you can train anywhere, no matter what, even if you don’t have food on you? Read on……

I share my life with a collie named Emery, and he is almost two years old. Emery is a really fun dog to train, because he loves learning and picks up new skills quickly. He also loves being rewarded with food treats during training games, which is very handy. But Emery sometimes gets bored of food, and so I have to be creative to get our training goals achieved. Thankfully, he likes many other things as well, so I am never without a way to reinforce his behavior and motivate him to want to work with me!

I had to experiment with non-food reinforcers with Emery from a young age. When he was a puppy, if we were on a walk and he saw a car coming towards us, he would freeze and refuse to budge to get out of the way of the oncoming car. No amount of coaxing or trying to offer treats to help him move would work. I had to come up with a plan and fast! This was a dangerous behavior and I had to teach Emery to move off the road for his own safety. So I started experimenting. It was fall, so there were lots of leaves on the ground. The next time I saw a car coming, I kicked a big pile of leaves so they flew in to the air and fluttered to the ground, and Emery chased them to the edge of the road. I kicked some rocks that were on the road – Emery chased those off the road as well.  I knew he liked these things because they motivated him to move and his body language looked similar to when he plays with toys. I also tried running away with him as fast as I could. Emery loved this, and ran with me on the leash and clearly had a marvelous time – all the way safely off the road. I had just discovered three new reinforcers for Emery that I could use when cars were coming, and in that scenario, they all worked better than food. I started using these things to motivate Emery to move off the road, and gave the behavior the cue “over.” Now when I say “over,” Emery goes to the side of the road, and then I can throw leaves or kick rocks as his “treat.”

The great thing about discovering non-food reinforcers for your dog is that it means you have a way to reward your dog no matter where you are.  If you run out of treats, does the training session have to be over? Not necessarily. There’s often something in the environment you can use to reinforce your dog’s behavior. Getting to sniff along the side of the road or at the park can be the reward for walking on a loose leash. If your dog tries to pull to a spot to sniff, don’t move a muscle. The second they look back at you and slack the leash, rush them over to sniff the spot they wanted to get to so badly. That’s their reward for not pulling.

You can also use reinforcers for your dog that might include things they SHOULDN’T do. “What? Did I hear that right?” you may be thinking. Well, yes. If doing something “naughty” is what reinforces your dog, you may be able to use that to your advantage. For instance, Emery likes to stand on the console in the car while I am driving. This is a big no-no because it is distracting and not safe for me as the driver, or him as the passenger. So he is absolutely not allowed to do so while I am driving. But, since he thinks it is a fun thing to do, I can reinforce him for not doing it by letting him do it when I say it’s ok. As soon as we pull in to our driveway where the safety risk is much less, I cue “paws up!” and he can ride with his paws on the console for a few hundred feet. We both get what we want – I get a dog who rides safely in the car when we’re out on the open road, and he gets to put his paws on the console, but only when I say and it’s safe. Win win! (Want to know how to train your dog to put their paws on something only when asked? Rockstar Dog Training can help!).

You can also use creative reinforcers when your dog really doesn’t want to do something. Emery doesn’t particularly like his feet being wiped when they’re muddy. To work on this, I break it down for him and use a reinforcer he loves. I wipe one paw, and then I cue him to tug with the towel. We play a short tug game, and then I ask him to drop the towel. I wipe another paw, cue the game again, etc. This turns foot wiping time in to a game for Emery, and he gets reinforced for getting his paws wiped. No treats needed! (Want to know how to train a safe game of tug so you can use it in situations like this? RSDT can help!).

The golden rule of reinforcers is that your dog gets to pick what is reinforcing. So if you have a dog who doesn’t really like toys, you can’t use toys to reinforce behaviors (unless you build motivation for toys…but this is another article for another time). I have one dog who would do anything for cheese, so that’s mostly what I use with him. I have one dog who loves attention from people. And then there’s Emery – he likes many things and needs variety! So that’s what I use with him. You may even stumble upon things your dog likes completely on accident. I dropped an ice cube on the floor one day and Emery chased after it. Now I can toss ice cubes as a reinforcer. It’s all up to the individual dog.

So you see, there are endless creative ways to reinforce your dog in positive reinforcement training.  Want to get started with your dog? Start making a list of everything they love, even if it’s naughty. Think about all the ways you can use things off this list to teach your dog new behaviors, or reinforce ones they know. Give Rockstar Dog Training a call if you need help putting your list to use. Yes, creativity is allowed in dog training!