I said it before, and I say it again: Force-free works with every dog, not just the sweet-tempered, biddable ones. But it’s gotta be done right, and that is much more than having a clicker in a hand and an endless supply of tiny-sized food pieces in a treat pouch.
Applying positive reinforcement most effectively means to know: How to use food, when to reward with food, when to reward with something else, and when it is advisable to refrain from externally adding anything at all.
I want to talk about food first.
Food is, of course, an existential need for all animals, and hence all animals are motivated by food – well, almost all. For humans, though, food is much more than simply survival. In every culture, around the world, food sharing and eating is part of ceremonial and celebratory rituals. Food has religious significance, and is an integral part whenever families and friends gather: We have romantic dinners, and fund-raising ones to help the poor and downtrodden; conferences and seminars involve food, and they advertise what is served to attract more people - to wet people’s physical as well as mental appetites.
Compare that with how food is used in a laboratory setting, the place where behavior, including positive reinforcement, was established and is still studied. Scientists prefer food exactly because most animals are highly motivated by it, and especially so when they are artificially kept a certain percentage under normal weight, when they are purposely underfed to raise motivation, when there is food scarcity, deprivation, a limited supply.
How do our companion dogs fit in that spectrum? Obviously, they are not humans. Dogs eat for the sake of eating and not to celebrate a mating or the birth of a litter. But they aren’t laboratory animals either: animals in an environment that utterly disregards everything non-scientific, including the human/dog relationship, and yet, many dogs are treated as if they were.
The daily kibble, the basic need that is our responsibility to provide when we own a dog like we nourish our children, is used, often entirely, to reinforce specific behaviors. Nothing is life is free, right? Particularly not for the family pooch.
Not just that, but like traditional trainers who recommend placing the dog in a stimulus deprived environment hours before a training session so that despite harsh corrections he still wants to work with the handler, some positive reinforcement trainers suggest not feeding the dog prior to training to raise motivation and even, like the lab rat, to keep the dog a little underweight. In the first scenario, being with a human on task is the lesser of two evils; in the second, the dog is keen to be with the human only because the human has food. Neither is the relationship I envision with my dog.
Food, including sharing some of our good-for-dogs human food, is free in our home. No strings attached because sharing gives me pleasure, and because my dogs learn that I, the mighty powerful one, have access to all these amazing assets I periodically dole out just because we belong together. Food sharing is a very bonding activity, and I get a lot of offered attention when I prepare food, and eat food, and eventually anytime and anywhere. Belonging and attention develops naturally and becomes a habit. And by the way, we never had a dog who was overweight. And this might surprise you too, also never one who was unmotivated by treats in training situations.
Here is the thing: If you like really like something, you’ll still like it even when it happens again, and again, and again.
You think a dog will only work for food if he is hungry? Just like a person might only push a hypothetical red button that spits out five-dollar bills if she actually needs small change? A rich person wouldn’t be bothered with such a dumb activity you think, and yet wealthy people sit for hours in front of slot machines, and you have dogs who have many balls in a toy box, and daily play, and still want more. When I give Will 10 pieces of chicken, does she say “Nah, thanks, I had enough” when I offer her one more? No. She says: “What can I do for you to get another piece”?
The truth is that if a dog, and person, is motivated by something she will stay motivated even if satiated with other stuff. To figure out what that is, is taking interest in the dog, and that, too, is bonding and will bring your relationship to a whole new level.
Artificially limiting resources for training and shaping purposes isn’t necessary, and can actually backfire when the dog becomes so hyper focused on food that the attention is not with the owner, or task, or body awareness, but only with food. Connecting and working with her human becomes but an activity to get done quickly in order to get food.
A dog who has to work for every morsel won’t do anything unless she’s paid in the currency she’s been taught, like the 6-month-old poodle client who’d only pay attention when she saw the treat pouch hanging off her person’s belt.
Let me be very clear: I use food to teach, and influence, and reinforce behaviors I like to see again. Food is easy to use and opens the door to learning. But when food is part of every interaction, and when dogs are deprived of what I think is their right, people and dogs become fixated and dependent on food, and worst of all, the owner becomes lazy and doesn’t explore what else their pooch is interested in, or doesn’t want to do. That’s the problem.
Reptiles in nature aren’t used to eating small pebbles of food frequently and, in scientific behavioral studies, never faired very well because they aren’t very motivated by frequent small pebbles of food. Hence, they got a reputation that they aren’t very smart - we all know the term lizard brain: other than instinct and core body functions, no one is home. Surprisingly, when scientists reinforced with the warmth of a heat lamp, something reptiles deeply care about, behaviors could be trained and lizard-brain turned out to be quite bright.
There are many things other than food our dogs care about; things they are intrinsically, by virtue of their nature, motivated by: Playing, sniffing, trailing, moving, distance, fetching, chasing, pulling, jumping – the best reinforcement for boxers, barking, and even biting – the often preferred reinforcement for Schutzhund trained German shepherds and Malinois.
The instructor at the herding clinic Davie and me participated in didn’t need food or a ball to get his collies do his bidding. They heeded their handler’s commands because otherwise they lost access to the sheep, for the moment. The opportunity to control sheep’s movements was what made them obey every whim, because controlling sheep is what floated their boat the most.
A couple of months ago we took care of a young Australian shepherd while his people were on vacation. As a typical Aussie, and after a rather short adjustment period, he was so responsive to us that I felt confident letting him off his leash. He never ran out farther than about 20 feet, checked in with me, returned, circled around me and dashed off again. This was on day three, and I was really tempted to food treat to reward such impeccable behavior, but didn’t because I didn’t have to. Re-orienting to us, his new lifeline as far as he knew, returning and circling, were all reinforcements in their own right and I didn’t need to add anything to it – anything other than giving him my full attention and erratically dodging around a bit so that he could chase and circle me some more.
However, we also practiced formal recalls and that I did reinforce with food, even though typically I like to reinforce coming when called with a game, not food, or at least food being part of a game, but because we already played movement games a lot, I used food for this particular dog and situation. I could have used a ball as well the Aussie was über-passionate about, but there were icy patches – it was winter in Canada – and I didn’t want to risk an injury.
I think you are getting my gist: Think when you work with a dog instead of following a popular template. You don’t have to “make a dog operant”. The dog is operant by virtue of being alive. When an action is intrinsic, facilitating opportunities for the dog to do what is natural is hard to top with anything added externally.
Yes, food is easy to use, but not always the most effective reinforcer, so don’t shove a treat in the dog’s mouth if he wants to sniff and mark the local piss pole.
And then there are situations in which any reinforcement that comes from you leads exactly to the behaviors that you don’t want.
I can’t count the number of young obnoxious dogs I met who are shaped to go the mat, and promptly reinforced with a click and treat, and as soon as they gobbled it up self-release and are right back to doing something obnoxious again. Going to the mat, and being pesky, forever yo-yos back and forth, and the mat itself can become part of an attention seeking game. Same thing with jumping when greeting: The dog is shaped to sit and sits, is clicked, treated and released to say hello, and as soon as she gets to the person, jumps.
Sometimes your dog simply needs to do something because you say so. Bet you thought you’d never hear that from me, and of course I am not talking about inflicting pain and punishments, but about managing with a leash until a new behavior is conditioned - or popping the pooch in the crate provided it is not perceived as aversive.
I recently had clients with a boxer puppy who at one point was wound so tight, so incapable of settling on her own, that I did just that: I gently, but manually, put her in the crate after her owners unsuccessfully tried to lure her in with food. Literally within seconds, and without any crying or scratching at the door, she was zonked out.
When a busy and energetic dog finally settles, operant conditioning laws tell you to reinforce that so that the behavior is repeated and you’ll get more settling in the future. In reality, the opposite will happen: the sleepy pooch on the mat or in her crate, sparked by your attention and the reinforcement, becomes active again, and potentially annoying. Having a safe and cushy spot to rest undisturbed when tired is reinforced, just not by us, and the wise owner leaves it like that.
One last thing: I don’t externally reinforce, no matter how good my dog’s behavior, if my goal is that certain stimuli become irrelevant, for example ducks in one of the parks we periodically visit, or the horses in our neighborhood. Reinforcing when my dog focuses on it would make the stimulus too much of a big deal, so I simply habituate.
Reinforcement, and not some magical telepathic emotion exchange as heard on TV, creates behavior. Silent pride is a heap of crap. That said, if the humans set the stage for companionship by: being together instead of always doing together, sharing food, and unconditionally giving affection and protection, you don’t always have to use a stick or carrot, or rather a choker or cookie, to get the kind of conduct that makes living with a dog so pleasurable. Your dog will want to be with you and please you.
And you also get away with requesting something from your dog she might not be so keen on at the moment. You won’t mess up your relationship if you have, as Dr. Susan Friedman says, enough accumulated trust in your bank account.