One question that trainers are often asked is if food treats must be used as the reinforcer. Some dogs do not like treats. There may be a time when you don’t have treats with you. Perhaps you just want to add variety to your training routine. The good news is that non-food reinforcers, such as petting or praise, can be just as powerful as food treats for some dogs—this type of reinforcement doesn’t require anything except you and your dog!
When thinking about positive reinforcement, food treats are likely top of mind. However, there may be times when you can’t use food because it’s off-limits for medical or other reasons. Fortunately, there are a number of other ways you can reinforce your dog’s behavior when it’s not convenient or safe to use food reinforcers.
Many people only think of using a primary reinforcer, such as food treats, when they are training behavior with an animal. However, there are many benefits to having of a variety of reinforcers that you can rely on. Secondary, or conditioned, reinforcers are stimuli, objects, or events that become reinforcing based on their association with a primary reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers have no innate biological value, so the value must be learned through experience and association.
Does your dog spend most of your walks sniffing the ground? Well, there’s a good reason for that! Unlike humans who rely on sight for environmental cues, dogs rely on scent. Sniffing is how they learn about their environment. Sniffing also has a calming effect on dogs. For these reasons, sniffing is a primary reinforcer, or something that is inherently reinforcing. So, why not harness a dog’s need to sniff by putting it on cue?
Have you ever wanted to reward your dog for a job well done, but didn’t have food treats with you? Consider playing with your dog to reinforce good behavior! Using play as a reinforcer adds variety to your training routine and helps strengthen your relationship. The key is to find a toy or interactive game (tug, retrieve, chase) that your dog enjoys.
Understanding reinforcement is the key to understanding how dogs learn. Reinforcement can be categorized as either primary or secondary. A primary reinforcer is a reinforcer that an animal needs to survive, such as food, water, or shelter. When you give your dog a treat for sitting on cue, you are using a primary reinforcer. However, when reinforced regularly, the “sit” behavior itself can become a secondary reinforcer.
The effective use of non-food reinforcers is a critical skill that all trainers will likely use or need at some point in their training career. In this video, Ken Ramirez and his dog Marlin demonstrate the use of clapping as a conditioned reinforcer. Ken begins by teaching Marlin that clapping is associated with yummy food. Once Marlin associates clapping with reinforcement, Ken begins cueing behaviors and then clapping.
When you give your dog a treat for a job well done, you are using a primary reinforcer, which is something that an animal needs to survive (i.e., food, water, shelter). While food reinforcers can be extremely useful, adding non-food reinforcers, or secondary reinforcers, will help you expand your skill set by giving you alternatives for influencing behavior. This is a particularly useful tool when working with animals from a distance (competition training), managing exotic animals, performing husbandry behaviors, or any situation where it’s not safe or appropriate to use treats.
When you give your dog a treat for a job well done, you are using a primary reinforcer, which is something that an animal needs to survive (i.e., food, water, shelter). While food reinforcers can be extremely useful, adding secondary reinforcers to the repertoire gives you alternatives for influencing behavior and expands the trainer skill set. Secondary reinforcers are reinforcers that the learner associates with primary reinforcers. Eventually, secondary reinforcers elicit similar responses to primary reinforcers through classical conditioning.
One of the biggest objections to positive reinforcement training is the perception that it’s “all about the food.” However, while food may be the primary reinforcer for training new behaviors, using a variety of non-food reinforcers is a powerful tool for maintaining those behaviors. Watch in this video as Ken Ramirez demonstrates the use of conditioned reinforcers, including clapping, petting, and tongue-tickling!