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Finding Your Companion's Motivation

So many times, training that uses positive reinforcement is viewed as a very one dimensional practice. The animal does something you like, you give them a treat. There’s also the belief that this method of training does nothing to stop undesirable behavior, but that myth deserves its own blog post.

While we do frequently use food as a form of reinforcement when working with our clients and their companions, it is just one of a wide variety of tools we can utilize when we are molding behavior. In fact, we are using multiple reinforcers with each pet we train. Expecting them to do things we want them to do, especially things that aren’t intrinsically reinforcing or desirable for them, just because we say so is a bit like your boss expecting you to work for nothing but their approval. Forgoing your paycheck is an apt analogy. Even humans do things for reinforcement, and not all reinforcement is created equal.

Every single animal has its own value system and learning that system helps us understand what is most reinforcing for them as well as offers us the ability to pair or adjust our reinforcement level based on the difficulty of the task we’re working on.

Let’s discuss some of the common categories of reinforcement:

Food is the first on our list simply because it tends to be the easiest to start with. We sometimes hear people tell us that their animal isn’t “food motivated”. While some are more enthusiastic about food resources than others, food is something needed for survival, so often we just need to do a bit of digging to figure out what roadblocks might be making food a less desirable option. I do want to note that even though food is necessary for survival, we don’t believe animals should be forced to work for every morsel. Using portions of your pet’s meal for training (if they enjoy it enough) is certainly a reasonable thing to do, but access to food strictly through working can lead some dogs to frustration and that can create larger issues.

While some animals will happily focus for their everyday food, a great deal of them would place their plain kibble fairly low on the totem pole that is their value system. This is understandable because it’s not particularly enticing and it’s something they have access to (as they should) each day. Dog’s who are free-fed, meaning their food is down and accessible at all times, are also more likely to be less impressed with it when it’s being offered as payment for a job well done.

Some clients get worried about onboarding treats as a means of training because of their pet’s weight. This is an understandable concern and one that I highly respect. As someone who’s worked in the veterinary field, I do not want to make your pet physically unhealthy on the journey to behavioral health. The first thing to understand is that when we’re using treats, we want them to be small. Really small. This helps tremendously with moderation, and with ensuring that we’re making the most out of what we’ve got. If a lot of training is happening via short, frequent sessions and there is a concern on calorie content, then we can make appropriate and temporary adjustments to the pet’s food intake to ensure we aren’t creating an issue.

It is very likely that we are going to need to train with treats that your companion finds valuable enough. It could be regular store-bought training treats, frozen vegetables, chicken, cheese, hot dogs, or any other thing that they place moderate to high on their list. This brings me to my next point: The animal gets to decide what’s reinforcing. Just because you think they should like something a lot, doesn’t mean they will. I prefer pie to cake and cake to ice cream, but I bet there are people who would not choose that order. I once had a dog in class who refused everything we offered, even bacon…but he would work like a pro for cheerios. My current dog likes lettuce more than I think he should, but he gets to be the decider on what he likes (provided it’s reasonable and safe for him to have). Not all cats are going to love tuna, despite what pop culture says. Additionally, the difficulty of the situation may mean that you need to up the ante. So if you don’t know what they prefer, then experiment. If you aren’t sure whether something is safe for your pet to have, your vet is the perfect person to ask before you try.

That also segues into my next point: Since the animal gets to decide what is reinforcing, this means that for some of them, food isn’t going to be the highest value thing we can use. For some it’s toys, and yes, for some it’s even praise and affection. Although I will say that we as human beings often overestimate the value our kind words have on our pets. That is not to say that praise shouldn’t happen…it should. I want my clients to use it in conjunction with whatever else they're using even if it isn’t our primary reinforcer. I have met a few that were capable of learning with praise alone, but odds are good it’s not enough for most.

A dog who lives for a good game of fetch is a great example of a dog who might be best trained with the toss of a tennis ball instead of a treat. I have many clients who are using both at different times depending on which is more appropriate for the situation.

Food, toys, games, praise: These are all potential options in training with your pet, but there is an entire world of reinforcement that exists that’s woefully underutilized. When we are wanting our pets to do something, first we need to help them understand what it is and how to do it, and we are surrounded by opportunities in everyday life that set us up for success. If my dog wants to go run in the yard and chase after squirrels and I want my dog to not rush out the door like a Tasmanian devil, there is a perfect opportunity to compromise so that we both get what we want. Helping him learn how to wait at the door is my aim, so what does he get for doing so? Access to outside! Wait at the door is what I get and in return for it, he gets exactly what he wants: To go run outside. We often look at the trade. What is the animal looking to access? Is it to go smell that particularly exciting spot a few feet away? For some dogs, sniffing can be a great reward for a loose leash!

In the same vein, using what your animal wants to deter undesirable behavior can also work beautifully. Many cats enjoy hanging out in locations that get them up high so they can survey the land. If your cat keeps getting on the counter but you don’t want them up there, giving them an alternate location up high in the same space (such as a cat tree or shelf) can help meet their needs and direct them to a more appropriate hang out spot.

Finding your pet’s motivation is about examining what they find desirable and helping shape their behavior into what you’re looking for by allowing them access to their reinforcements via a trade of what you want. It can be quite fun and informative when you start to think outside the box! Have fun playing around with what your companion's value system is and remember to pay them for the job you're asking of them.

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