What to use as reinforcement

by Emily Larlham

Food: Keep your dog’s treats as healthy as you can.  Real meat is a great treat because it is healthy and easy to swallow quickly.  Less healthy treats are tiny bits of cheese, hot dog, bread and other table scraps.

Find out which treats are the most and the least reinforcing for your dog or puppy.  Reserve the treats of the highest value for very important behaviors like the recall, and Classical Conditioning (teaching your dog to be calm around dogs, people, and noises).  Using the highest value reinforcement for the things you find most important will save you time, and yield faster and stronger results.

Toys: Tugs, balls, Frisbees, a balloon, the garden hose, empty plastic water bottles, foam poles, sticks… In short, ANYTHING!

You can teach your dog that anything you pick up is a “toy” so that when you are out-and-about you can reinforce your dog’s behavior with anything you find lying around.  Watch the video below on how to train your dog to work for different types of toys.  You can condition a large variety of toys- sticks on the ground, pine cones, a leaf, tugs, plastic bottles, and so on.  Then, when your dog has a large number of toys he likes playing with, be inventive and try playing with things you find lying around on a walk.  You can use an anticipation cue like “ready… steady… GET IT!!!”, to get the dog interested in the object.  You can also play “keep away” from the dog and pretend what you have picked up is very exciting for you.

How to train your dog to work for both toys and treats:

This video goes over how you can get your dog interested in working for toys if he only works for food and how to get your dog interested in working for food if he only works for toys.  The video also goes over how to incorporate both toys and food together in training sessions.


The environment: You can also reward your dog with access to the environment.  For example, once your dog knows the cue “Sit,” you could ask your dog to sit before going out a door, and the reward for sitting would be that you opened the door and released the dog to go out.  Or perhaps you ask your dog for eye contact, and the reward would be for the dog to be released to sniff a bush.  If you ask for eye contact and the dog cannot do it, wait while not letting the dog get to the bush and ask again from further away from the bush to make it easier, if the dog looks at you, say “yes” and release the dog to sniff the bush.  It might take your dog a few repetitions to learn this, but once the dog learns the important lesson that YOU control access to the environment, your dog will be more interested in working for you even if you don’t have treats or toys with you.  You want to teach your dog it is always in his best interest to do what you want him to do.

Tip: You can capture calm behaviors with the environment as well.  An example: the moment your dog looks calm, you open the door to the yard for your dog and play a game of ball.  Another example: you hold your dog’s leash and harness, and if your dog gets over-excited, you simply wait until your dog is calm and relaxed before going out the door.  You could also get your dog’s leash and harness out while your dog is calmly resting, to reinforce your dog for calm behaviors with the reward of going for a walk.   Another example: wait for your dog to be calm before allowing him to greet dogs and humans.  If you are not careful you can reinforce over-excitement when you let your dog greet someone when your dog is over-aroused.  You could also end up reinforcing the opposite of what you want, if you were to go out and play ball with your dog after your dog barked at you or ran around the house whining.

Tip: When training new behaviors using the clicker, only follow the click with food when you first start training your dog.  You can reinforce your dog with food, toys, and the environment for behaviors he already knows, if your dog does not look disappointed or confused when given an alternate reward (besides food).

Be unpredictable! Always be unpredictable with your reinforcement (treats and toys).  If you always give the same treat, your dog can start to weigh the options: Sniff the dead rat or come back for a piece of kibble? If the dog thinks you’re predicable, he will be more likely to choose the environment over you.  If your dog never knows what he might get as a reward, he’s going to take the risk and pass up on the dead rat.  Also by reinforcing your dog continually for the same behavior with high value reinforcement, your dog will start to offer the behavior, like a recall, even when he is not hungry because of the previous conditioning.  I keep three different types of treats in my treat bag and keep rotating them so that my dogs don’t know what they will get next time.  I also make sure to rotate toys that I use for training.


25 Dog and Puppy Training Tips:

For each month of the year, I will release 2 training tips that will be accessible for free at dogmantics.com.  If you simply cannot wait for the information to be published online, and want to support my work, you can buy the collection of all 25 training tips in an ebook format here: 25 Dog and Puppy Training Tips  Thank you!

This is a list of all the tips included in the ebook, and that will be eventually available online:

  1. Teaching a dog previously kept outside to be calm inside the house
  2. The problem with ignoring unwanted behaviors
  3. Fading a lure
  4. Adding a verbal cue or changing a cue
  5. Dogs and babies
  6. Socializing tips- Our world can be a scary place!
  7. What to do if your puppy bites you OUTSIDE of a training session
  8. Changing your thinking from “I don’t like” to “I need to work on”
  9. What to use as reinforcement
  10. Treat deliveries
  11. Teaching your puppy appropriate greetings on leash
  12. Teaching “All done” for training sessions and dinnertime manners
  13. Variety is the spice of life… and training!
  14. Teaching your puppy to walk off leash
  15. Don’t let your dog free feed
  16. Don’t only work on one behavior at a time
  17. Separation training tips
  18. Monkey see, monkey do- Take advantage of social facilitation
  19. Always remember to release your dog!
  20. The importance of handling
  21. Chewing
  22. Teaching “Drop” and “Get it”
  23. What to do if your puppy sits and refuses to budge on a walk
  24. Generalizing
  25. Training your dog to do absolutely… NOTHING!

Happy Training!