What does YOUR dog find reinforcing?

When I go out for a walk with my dog -the Hovawart ladies Dea or Eevi in the past, now Forbes the Aussie boy- I have a lot of good stuff in my pockets. Of course the other dogs smell it too and they become glued to me, stare at me, sniff me and some may even try and jump on me. It always amazes me how the owners of these dogs start scolding their dogs for begging and do their best to haul them away from me. I always feel like asking if I can borrow their dog for some training. This is amazing, I have something that the dog wants, I’m so writing down his number! Or alternatively I feel like handing out my treats to the owner and saying there you go, take advantage of your dog’s desires and train him to do what you want him to do. I wish more people would realize how wonderful it is to be in possession of something that your dog wants, it opens the doors for a line of communication.

Training is all about manipulating the consequences for a behavior. In order to reinforce the behaviors that we like we have to have something that dog really and truly wants. Food is of course the easiest, it fits nicely into our pockets, and we can deliver it repeatedly in small quantities.  Another common reinforcement is play. If you are one of those people whose dog is willing to flip a somersault for a piece of kibble, I truly envy you. If your dog is tennis ball crazy I also envy you. Since you have these easy tools you can train your dog anything that he is mentally and physically capable of doing.  If your dog is not one of the above you are in the same boat as me. We cannot decide what our dog wants, we have to listen to them to tell us that.

The intention is there if you have dry commercial dog treats in your pocket. But what if my dog does not eat them? This question one can only answer with another question: that is very sad, when did your dog pass away? Every healthy animal will eat, they will not starve themselves to death. Years ago I remember ‘starving’ my Dea for a couple of weeks and during which she started getting her food only when we were outside training passing other dogs. I was reluctant to do this in the beginning, I had a lot of ‘what if’s’ but I was told that in the wild the prey would not just fly into my dog’s mouth, either. A hungry dog is a motivated dog! Throughout Dea’s whole life most of her food came through training, especially when she was at her peak in obedience/tracking/search and rescue training. Oh no, she would never give me anything for free, I had to really use my imagination.

OK, so you’re willing to ration your dog’s food but how about if he is still picky about the menu? Then it is time to bring out the big guns! I have been doing a lot of experimenting, and most of the commercial dog treats just don’t do it. I myself would work much harder for $100 than for $1. I also differentiate between currencies, I prefer CAD, Euros and US dollars (in this order) to other currencies because they just have more value for me. Also the harder the job, the more motivated I am to try if the stakes are higher. So for dog training I have mostly abandoned examining the dry dog treat section at pet stores, my treat pouch is filled with meatballs, cheese, skin from barbecued chicken, beef, liver, chicken heart, giblets and such. Sure it is icky but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make for my dogs, and I don’t care if my dog training clothes are covered in grease. I have lately discovered the delights of Liverwurst, that stuff will never let you down! Just today a client’s young Dachshund who has developed phobias towards being handled by people was climbing all over me and let me pull his ears in anticipation of the Liverwurst. A pretty reactive Doberman in our Cranky Canine classes is now focused on his owner, his eye practically rolled over in his head the first he was liverwursted. I had trouble in getting Forbes to retrieve objects outside in our tracking exercises, he was too distracted, but using liverwurst as the reward increased his motivation by about 500%. It’s bloody magic!

We know which one of these we’d rather have in our pockets.

Different currencies have different value for different people.

How about if you really would love to play with your dog but he doesn’t grab the rope toy that you bought for him and that is invitingly left for him to have any time? Dogs are like little kids, whatever they can have all the time becomes boring. Therefore, the reward toys are sacred, only you can magically make them appear in exchange for behaviors that you like. This is all that was required for my dogs in the past: take the tug out of your pocket and the Hovawart jaws were already on it. Then I got Forbes, who had no desire to tug with me. I took all the good advice from trainers like Susan Garrett and Jean Donaldson and shaped him to play tug with me. I must say the tug toys that are sold at regular pet stores are disappointing, the jute tugs are the best.  I started tug training by teaching Forbes to retrieve a tug toy. Next I started holding onto the tug toy harder when he returned it to me, and clicked and treated harder grabs on it. That worked, Forbes is happily tugging with me now. Unless the environment is too distracting for him as I next discovered. I had to start experimenting AGAIN. What I have found now is a fur toy made out of real fur, that he goes crazy over. It works well even in training sessions where other dogs are present. My dog has made his choice. The number one reward for him is still sniffing a female dog’s bum, I don’t think I can fit that into my pockets!

So if you are having motivational issues with your dog, it is time to start experimenting. I would love to hear what your dog’s favorites are, so please share!

Dry dog treats, barbequed chicken or liverwurst?

Forbes's choices for play arranged in ascending order.

Forbes’s choices for play arranged in ascending order.




  •    Reply

    excellent blog post!! I’m going to put this on my “list of resources to send to clients”!

  •    Reply

    Ha! You simply *must* send me some Liverwurst, I want to try how Rho would feel about it.

    The toys my dogs have access to without my involvement are a couple of birch logs, a solid rubber ball and a few braided tug toys (which are there to prevent them from tugging amongst themselves using stolen socks and other undesirable items). All of the good toys are mine and they only come out as reinforcement. Rho is pickier about what he’ll play with, so I’ll list his first: 1. (by far) Raccoon tail-on-a-rope, 2. braided tug toy with rabbit fur 3. squeaky Kong tennis ball on a rope 4. medium size Cuz (I prefer the ones with legs, since you can tie a rope to a leg and not give Rho the chance to have his own fun across the hall) 5. sticks of natural wood (go figure) 6. socks (preferably used and out of the laundry basket) 7. tissue paper. Pi’s list: 1. tug toys with fur/squeak/food stuffing 2. other tuggable toys (including sticks of wood, his own leash, or any item really) 3. fetchable toys which squeak 4. other fetchable toys. For both my dogs I think the absolute number one toy reward would be a squeaky stuffed toy which they’d be allowed to disembowel.

    With food Rho is again pickier: A-class foods include boiled chicken breast, liver paté, onion-tea-sausage (I honestly did not know this existed before I bought some for Rho), boiled chicken hearts, reindeer meat. B-class foods include BBQ chicken, ham, meatballs, liver/hamburger “pancake”. C-class would include stuff like cheese, Frolics, Ziwipeak products and his regular kibble if he happens to be really hungry. Stuff Rho won’t touch includes surprising items like goat’s milk cheese. Pi almost ate my whole hand when I offered some to him, Rho licked his piece and promptly spit it out. Pi’s list of foods is pretty much this: A-class foods are any and all people foods maybe not including lettuce. B-class foods include any other organic matter.

    It’s easy to see Pi finds more things reinforcing than Rho. It doesn’t seem to immediately follow that he’s easier to train though – since he finds so many things so very desirable, I often find he gets fixated on the possibility to earn reinforcement and forgets to think. Whenever I manage to convince Rho that it’s worth his time and effort to work with me, he gives me a more thoughtful and focused performance.

  •    Reply

    Hey Aikki,

    You have clearly done a lot of research on reinforcements, impressive! Thanks or sharing your list, I will definitely try some of those. Real fur toys are a big hit, aren’t they?! You’re already using Liverwurst, it is basically maksamakkara 🙂

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