Weaning off Treats Pt. 2
On Monday I wrote about how to wean off of treats during your training. I really focused that post exclusively on the mechanics of how to reduce treats during training but there is a piece of the puzzle that I didn’t really write about and that’s about expanding the rewards we use. This is something I sometimes forget to talk about because I do it from the very early stages of training. Rio was working for a chance to play with the flirt pole or fetch a ball/toy or wrestle with me very early on in the game because he had so much toy/play drive.
I use a lot of food rewards early on in training for a variety of reasons. Food allows me to have a very high rate of reinforcement because it doesn’t take long for the reward to happen (for the dog to take the treat and swallow). Dogs are all motivated by some type of food (level of motivation may vary) and many are highly motivated by food. Dogs have to eat, so it provides ample opportunities for using their normal meals as rewards. I am able to be very precise with my reward placements with food this can help a dog in shaping a behavior, it can encourage duration, and can reset a dog in a way that makes the next repetition flow well. For most dogs, food rewards offer a range in level of reward so one can be working with low level and high level rewards. It’s also just really easy on a mechanics level to carry food and deliver food as a reward.
With all that being said, food is absolutely not the only reinforcer for dogs and the more handlers increase the use of non-food rewards, the more dogs learn to work for things other than food.
I do not generally use non-food rewards to teach new behaviors (for the aforementioned reasons, though there are some behaviors I do) but once the behavior is pretty well known and reliable, I will start adding in non-food rewards (I typically start adding in non-food rewards before I really start weaning off treats in any real fashion).
The first step to using non-food rewards is knowing what your dog likes and what your dog LOVES besides food. This is where knowing your dog and being creative are absolutely key. You can reward your dog by tossing a ball up in the air to catch, you can throw a special squeaky toy, or you can offer a tug toy for a game of tug if your dog likes toys and likes these games. Perhaps a flirt pole is your dog’s toy of choice. You can reward a dog with getting a chance to chase critters (especially if they were working with you and ignoring them), you can reward the dog with getting to explore or sniff a shrub (or other distraction that had been previously ignored while working), or getting to go visit a person or dog that they would really like to see. It’s even possible for a learned behavior to become reinforcing enough to act as a reward–Shayne and Rio will jump up and hand target, jump into my arms, and “scoot” as rewards for doing other behaviors (these behavior have all been so heavily reinforced that they themselves have becoming rewarding). Chasing games are great rewards for different behaviors (I use them frequently during heeling and recall). All of these toys and games can be fantastic options for dogs who are driven by toys or play but there are even rewards that can be used for dogs who are not play or toy driven.
Some of the rewards most often neglected are life rewards. Life Rewards are the things that your dogs want during their day to day lives (shy of water). Day to day rewards may include getting a leash on, going for a walk, eating meals, going out the front door, going for a car ride, getting to go swim, and many others. We can use all of these as rewards if the opportunity presents itself. It only makes sense to use these when the dog actually wants them–if the dog just came back from a walk, using the walk as a reward is probably not terribly effective.
All of these can be rewards, but not all of them are rewards for all dogs. Shayne really gets a kick out of me playing with her–I may just act all excited and hit her sides and push her around, or I may get on the ground and wrestle around, but this dog with human play is very reinforcing for her, she gets so excited! Rio, on the other hand, does NOT like that type of play–he likes when I get very excited and we play a game whee I ‘tap’ his side and then run a few steps away and he gets to chase then I tap and chase him. You have to really know your dog and know what motivates her–remember that dogs choose what is rewarding to them, it’s not always what we want or think will be rewarding for them. One of the best suggestions I have is to make a long list of things that your dog likes, really likes, and loves–you have to be creative sometimes and think outside the box.
Once you have a list of non-food items that your dog at least “likes,” learning how and when to use these new reinforcers is key. I will start very early on adding in basic behaviors during games of fetch or other fun game, like tug–the dog wants to play fetch and initiates the game, I will cue some pretty well known behavior before tossing the ball frequently during our game. The pups start to learn that doing these behaviors make awesome things happen–even when those awesome things aren’t food. I will practice any number of behaviors during games of fetch, or before initiating play, or before releasing the dogs to sniff/explore even before I start to officially wean off of treats. These games will help me when I actually start weaning off of treats because the dog has a history already of working for non-food rewards.
If a dog is not a toy driven dog, when I start to wean off treats I will do two things, first I start using very low value food rewards (carrots, beans, peas, cheerios, whatever is low value for that particular dog) and will use very high value non-food rewards. If done correctly (ie, if the non-food reinforcer is equal to or better than the low-value food item), the dog will learn that non-food rewards can be fantastic! I also start using a lot of life rewards with the pup since those are things the dog finds valuable in a day to day situation.
By finding other ways to reward our dog’s behavior, we can reduce the amount of food rewards we use once a behavior is well known and reliable. Pair this idea with becoming a slot machine and dogs will become reliable without treats handy because they are working for the winning pull while also finding value in non-food rewards.