Let’s talk about motivation! If you are in the business of using Positive Reinforcement (+R) as a trainer (or owner), then you need to truly understand what motivates your learner. I fear that somewhere along the way, we have vastly oversimplified this concept and distilled it to “just feed treats” or “petting/praise works” or “oh, the ball works every time”. The reality is the positive reinforcer is determined by your dog. NOT you. Maybe your dog is hot and thirsty and would rather have water than food. Maybe your dog doesn’t like to be touched when working, and so finds petting irritating in that moment. Maybe your dog has been running all morning and no longer wants to work for a ball but would like to lie down and rest in the shade, thank you very much. I’ll say it again. The. Reinforcement. Is. Determined. By. The. Dog. Not the owner. Not the trainer. The learner. And the sticky reality is the thing that motivates them can change, so we have to remain flexible and adapt to that.
Why does this matter? If you want to use +R in your training, then you truly need to understand what motivates your dog. I have heard multiple clients complain that they tried +R and it didn’t work for their dog (side note: the function of +R is to increase behavior, so if behavior isn’t increasing, then +R isn’t being correctly employed. But don’t get me started too far down that tangent…). I have also seen many, many owners in classes, private lessons, or even just walking down the street attempt to offer something that they thought was reinforcing for their dog and the dog was clearly demonstrating stress and avoidance behaviors (often petting, but I have even seen this when owners offer food at the wrong moment). I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news — cue the toll of the bells — but many dogs don’t like to be petted when working. It doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy physical contact at other times in their day. But they may not like it when they are concentrating on learning a new skill. I’m the first to admit I love getting a good massage, but for heavens sake don’t try it when I am concentrating on something else. You’ll see some pretty intense ninja-style avoidance with a handful of stress behaviors from me as well.
In case you hadn’t picked up on it yet, identifying relevant and genuine motivators is critical to successfully using +R in training. In a [VERY] brief introduction to learning theory, +R means you are adding something that increases the probability that a behavior will occur again. If you find in your training that the behavior you are working on isn’t increasing, or worse, is decreasing in frequency, then (as noted above) you are not in fact using +R*.
Go with me on this. Pretend you are a little kid and you are just learning a new skill. Maybe you are learning to cut carrots with a knife. The thing is, every time you do it correctly, your Great Aunt Mildred comes over and gives you a big, squishy kiss. It feels slimy on your cheek, it distracts you as you are trying to concentrate on this new skill, and it’s kind of invasive and creepy. In this scenario, you find that kiss aversive. Is it painful? No. But it is irritating and uncomfortable. If I were the kid in this story, I guarantee I would likely never again cut carrots around Great Aunt Mildred. I may never cut them again at all. The problem? Mildred thought she was adding a form of reinforcement and praise that would increase my carrot-cutting behavior and encourage me, when in fact she was punishing that carrot-cutting behavior so that I wouldn’t want to do it again.
So what do you do? How to you make sure you are truly using appropriate motivation in training?
Watch your dog – No, seriously, watch your dog. The dog will tell you every time whether or not the reinforcer you have chosen is the BEST THING EVER, if it is “eh, not too bad, but hey…look! There’s a squirrel over there”, or “Umm…eww. Please, please stop doing that.” Look at your dog’s body language. Do they sparkle**? Do they get excited? Are they happy to be there? Because believe me…that’s exactly what you want.
Test it out – If you show off your super cool reinforcer to your dog and then stand neutrally for several seconds do they 1) stare into your eyes with a goofy smile and a happy, waggy tail, or 2) do they quickly disengage and come up with something else to do? If you find that you are getting the latter response, you may need to rethink what you use for motivation and reinforcement.
Consider unconventional reinforcers*** – I fully admit I use food in training with a fairly high frequency. Food works for a lot of dogs in a lot of contexts and is undoubtedly a primary reinforcer. But I also see great value in using other things as well. Two dogs come to mind in particular. For one, the chance to play tug would beat out the chance to eat a turkey meatball any day of the week. So we used play with high frequency in her training. For another, running was absolutely the reinforcer of choice. That dog loved to run, and found it far more engaging, fun, and reinforcing than a cookie any day (and I will say we created an absolutely killer recall with him by running away as he came towards us). For one dog I know, it was getting the chance to tear up a tissue. Maybe you find that functional rewards work better in certain scenarios (ex: the chance to go outside, the chance to be let off leash, etc). And for some dogs, don’t underestimate the chance to truly play and engage with their handler. You also need to consider what you will be asking your dog to do and pair the activity appropriately with the reinforcer you choose.
Remain flexible – Depending on the moment, context, or situation, what reinforces your dog will change. You will be a stronger trainer if you can stay flexible and notice when your dog may be interested in something different.
Once you discover the things that truly motivate your dog, you will find a completely wonderful (and fun!) dimension in your training and discover that you succeed with a much higher frequency. Happy training!