Thus, food, petting and praise are great reinforcers if and only if they’re something your dog wants at the time they’re given, as opposed to something that makes you feel good for giving them. But there’s much more to PR than dog treats, pets and praise. This is where great trainers become truly creative, and is often the reason some dogs are phenomenally responsive. My favorite story of creative reinforcement comes from Bark blogger and CAAB Dr. Karen B. London. She was out with her newly acquired Lab mix, Bugsy, when they flushed a deer. She called him to come just before he sprang off in pursuit, and to her joy and amazement, he turned and ran back to her. Alas, before their outing, she had switched jackets on the fly and inadvertently left her training treats at home. She couldn’t even take off running to let Bugsy chase her because she was wearing cross-country skis and facing the wrong way in the ski track. Ever the quick thinker, Karen reached into her pocket, took out a used tissue and gave it to Bugsy when he arrived. Voila! Her dog was thrilled at this acquisition, and Karen’s creative thinking laid a foundation for a solid recall for years to come.
I turned to my own blog for examples of creative reinforcements, and my readers responded with enough ideas to inspire all of us. There were lots of examples of letting the dog have limited access to the very distraction she had been called away from (compost heap, dead bird, garbage bag). Many comments revolved around what trainers call “life rewards,” meaning the dog gets what she wants as a matter of course during the day (say, going outside after waiting at the door). Another easy way to reinforce your dog is to use a well-known cue as a reinforcer itself. For example, most dogs know how to sit on cue, and if you’ve used PR to train this behavior, the cue itself becomes a secondary reinforcer: “If I sit as asked I’ll get a treat! I love to sit!”
However, there are many more ways to expand your repertoire — you just need to know what your dog loves. Effective reinforcements include ice cubes, snowballs, bunny poop, cheering and clapping, pine cones, feathers, paper-towel tubes, digging, being allowed to sniff interesting things, running around the yard in crazy circles … and on and on. You can see that the list is almost endless — you’re constrained only by the number of things that make your dog happy and being mindful of your dog’s safety (e.g., you can sniff some things but not ingest them). One smart agility trainer had a dog who, no matter what she tried, would not go around the last weave pole. Then she remembered that her dog loved to jump into the car, so she set up the poles leading toward the car and used jumping in as a reward for weaving around the last pole.
Another agility trainer taught a fearful dog to enjoy the teeter board by using scent marking as a reward. Turns out the dog loved to lift his leg and mark objects, so every time he took one step closer to walking across the teeter, he got to lift his leg on the fence! This is a perfect example of what psychologists call the “Premack principle,” which says that a more-probable behavior can be used to reinforce a less-probable behavior. In other words, if your dog loves to dig, there’s a high probability he’ll do it if he has the chance. If that’s true, you can use digging as a reinforcer, secure in the knowledge that he must love it if he does it so often. If there is a low probability he’ll come when called after he’s seen a squirrel, you can use digging to reinforce a recall in that context.