Food is a primary reinforcer because it’s a basic need, and yummy food lights up the brain’s pleasure centers. To more accurately identify the desired behavior, we can use a secondary reinforcer (like a clicker or a word such as “Yes!”) that we then associate with the primary reinforcer. (Click = treat.)
Food is not the only possible reward. Depending on the dog’s temperament, a suitable reward might also be a favored toy, something to chase, or praise. I saw this in the mother of the puppy we owned a couple of summers ago; she was so play-driven as to be oblivious to food but would immediately respond to commands for the chance to play with her favorite toy, a ball on a cord. Whatever it is, the reward must be something of high value to the dog.
Folks attempting to train their dogs with reward-based training can run into problems because they don’t use sufficiently yummy food. Kibble isn’t going to cut it for most dogs, especially if they’ve already been fed and aren’t hungry. Think of it this way:
You’re wandering around a playground, trying out various equipment. Some things are just plain fun, like whooshing down the slide. Others, meh. But when, in your ramblings, you jog a hundred feet, someone hands you a nickel, is that going to make you eager to repeat it? How about if someone hands you a dollar? Twenty dollars? A thousand dollars? Or, in food terms, a stalk of celery versus a Godiva chocolate (versus a whole box of Godiva chocolates). In training, the treats must be sufficiently yummy to that particular dog to elicit the “Wow, let’s do that again!” response.
It’s important to note the difference between a bribe and a reward. In a bribe, the treat is offered before the behavior is performed, so the dog’s focus is on the treat, not the choice of behavior; a reward is just the opposite. A reward is anything that increases the frequency of the behavior preceding it.
Dogs vary in what is yummy to them, just like people do. Kibble may be meh to okay for most dogs, but how about freeze-dried salmon or beef liver? Bits of cooked chicken? Slivers of hot dog? One of the fun things about owning a dog is discovering what lights him up, both the medium-value treats and the PLEASETELLMEWHATTODOI’LLDOANYTHING treats.
So far, Tajji’s Treat List is topped by freeze dried beef liver, freeze dried lamb lungs, and beef or chicken baby food. Next come chicken liver-based pea-sized training treats (such as Zuke’s or Lil’Jacks). (Dried green tripe is, hands down, the highest endorphin-crazy-making treat, but it’s hard to find and crumbly to use.)
An example of how to use both low or medium value treats with high value treats is Sandi Pensinger’s “Name Game.” Throw a low value treat on the ground a little distance away. As soon as the dog snarfs it, call the dog’s name. The instant the dog looks toward you, click or say “Yes!” and reward with the high value treat. The lower value one is to get the dog facing away from you so that you can practice reinforcing the turn-toward-you (and come to you).
As an interesting side note, one of our cats, our black male Shakir, is motivated by food strongly enough so I’ve been training him to do various tricks (like touching his nose to mine when I bend over or turning in circles). I use the same techniques as with the dog. Shakir, however, is not at all finicky about what he considers a treat. Cat kibble, even old cat kibble, works just fine. He’s convinced that anything given to him in the kitchen (where we train, because Tajji is not allowed in the kitchen) must be superior to the same food offered in his dish.
Just about every animal I’ve owned has enjoyed foods not normally considered part of that species’ diet. The horse I had in high school adored watermelon rinds. My old gray tortoiseshell cat, Cleo, would steal cooked broccoli from the table and run off with it like a bandit. Various cats and dogs loved peanut butter and avocados.
Tajji likes the stalks of romaine lettuce.
She came to us liking them, and with the catch-it game. I toss 1” sections from the base into the air and she snaps them in her jaws, then chews them (rather juicily, as dog’s teeth are not exactly designed for lettuce). Because of her age, I try to aim so she doesn’t have to leap into the air, although her accuracy is quite good. It’s a lovely game, one we both enjoy.
What’s your pet’s favorite treat?
The photo is by Duró Sándor, public domain.
The photo is by Duró Sándor, public domain.