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Trainer’s Corner: Know Your Pet’s Reinforcers

Training with positive reinforcement means you are increasing the likelihood of any given behavior occurring by following that behavior with something the learner values. 

Knowing that, important to your success, you’ve got to know what it is that your pet values. And that can change all the time.

Here are a few tips for learning your pet’s top choices.  

First Step: Learn your dog’s top treats

To do this, prepare five different kinds of treats that you think your dog may like. Then, with your dog out of sight, place a sample of each one in a row (about a foot apart), spaced out along the floor or board. Bring your dog in, let him explore…and observe. Write down the results, in which order your dog went to the treats.

NOTE:  Your dog may go from left to right. If so, another option may be to place your dog in a sit/stay while you put the food down and then release your dog to the food. This may solve that problem.

Next, prepare five more kinds of treats and repeat the steps. Do this three different times. Then do a round where you include the top two treats from each previous session.

You may be surprised by what you learn!

Second Step: Learn your dog’s favorite toys or games

Start paying attention to what your dog engages with the most, and how. Does he spend more time with squeaky toys, chew toys, or toys that roll? Does your dog like to play by himself more or play tug or another game with you? Take note of those preferences.

Step Three: Learn your dog’s favorite—and least favorite—human interaction

Pay attention to how your dog responds to your interaction with him and at what times. Are there certain types of behaviors you do that cause your dog to engage more with you? Are there things that you do that cause your dog to show avoidance behaviors? Does your dog like you to tug with him? This is important information not only in training, but in life. 

Step Four: Learn your dog’s competing reinforcers (distractions)

This is a very important step because it is important to always be thinking in terms of helping your pet to succeed; and you do that by beginning training in an environment with minimal distractions, only working up as your pet can continue to succeed. Rate your list of distractions on a scale of 1 to 10, noting that something will increase in difficulty the closer that distraction is. Being a football field away from another dog may be a level 3 distraction but cut that distance in half and you may be looking at a level 8 distraction.

Taking stock of your dog’s value list will go a long way toward being able to build value for the behaviors you want to teach your dog, by using that value list as consequences to the wanted behaviors. 

Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.

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