Alternate Reinforcers


"Will I have to use treats forever??" 

This is such a common question that we get asked as trainers. 

The answer is "yes and no". Yes because it is the fastest, most efficient, and most effective way of training any animal, but once you've taught the behaviour, you can phase out the food and replace it with alternate reinforcers. 

What are those? Well, I'm glad you asked. Reinforcers are anything the animal will work to obtain. How simple is that?! 

Think about it in your terms. What do you work for? Yes, you work for your paycheque (let's call that "treats"), but what else do you work to obtain? These can be small things or big things - they don't have to be the same for everyone as we're all motivated differently. 

For me, if I'm teaching a seminar, I'm not actually working for the money; that isn't critical to me in that scenario. I'm working to obtain connection - I love looking at the faces in an audience and seeing the lightbulbs go on above people's heads. I love making people laugh as they learn something new or at least learn to look at something a different way. If I've done that, I've been reinforced. And if I've been reinforced, I will do it again and again! 

With Salinger, he has so many reinforcers that it's hard to keep track! Food is a big one for him for sure, and I'm happy to use it. If he's really jazzed up about something outside, I can also use the leash or a tug toy to reinforce him for something like eye contact - a few tugs and a "drop it" is enough to convince him that eye contact is worth giving me. If there's a great smelling fire hydrant coming up, he might pull towards it, I slow to a stop and ask him for a "touch" - when he bumps my hand, I say "okay!" and together we jog to the hydrant so he can have a good sniff. He might pick up a wood chip and I ask him for a "drop it" and when he does, instead of feeding him a piece of food, I tell him "get it!" and he can actually HAVE the wood chip to crunch and spit out (or sometimes he eats it). 

See? There are so many things your dog will work to obtain - we just have to pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few questions: 

  • what is it that my dog wants right now?
  • is it safe for me to provide access to that?
    • if yes, then what is the most likely behaviour that s/he can perform in this moment?
    • if no, then how can I make it up to him/her so s/he doesn't feel ripped off? 

Alternate reinforcers are incredibly powerful. So powerful that food often won't work if you try to use it once you've started using an alternate reinforcer. 

Your dog decides what is reinforcing. You do not.  

That's why the questions above are so paramount! 

Let's give this a try and see what your dog finds most reinforcing! Start by practicing "say please" just so you can get the hang of it in an easier environment. 

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