Lesson 9 of 10
In Progress

How to start training with food away from home, and using non-food reinforcers

The first thing to do is make sure you’re leveling up appropriately. Have you already taught the behavior at home? Have you trained in multiple low-distraction environments? Is the dog clear on the criteria?

In the recall and loose leash courses, we talk a lot about the role that time plays in difficulty levels. When I take a dog to a park for the first time, they’re super excited, there are lots of things to smell, and they’ve got a ton of energy, so they’re probably not going to be interested in working for food right away.

The simplest solution: let them sniff and explore before you start training. That doesn’t mean you have to do that forever; it’s totally reasonable to have the end goal of being able to train before you do sniffing and exploring. But it is an example of appropriate leveling-up. It’s one of the levels on the road to proficiency at a trained behavior.

Foundation training

Food-based training is great, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum.

All else being equal, a handful of chicken or even steak is not going to win against the squirrel that just ran up a tree, or all of Sparky’s doggie friends at the dog park. I would never expect it to.

But that doesn’t mean that food cannot be used to train the dog to listen even in those situations.

The idea that “I need to find a treat the dog cares about more than they care about distractions” is sort of a surface level, rudimentary understanding of reward-based training. It’s where a lot of us (myself included) start when we start experimenting with this type of training.

And it’s also where a lot of us get frustrated and give up. My dog will never care about chicken more than they care about playing with other dogs, so positive training doesn’t work for me.

But reward based training does get a lot more sophisticated and elegant than that.

And this is where foundation skills come in.

Things that build your dog’s desire to pay attention to you because you have a lot of fun together, and teach them that doing what you want will get them what they want.

Foundation training is how we can start incorporating other types of reinforcers. Which is important for all dogs, but it’s especially helpful for dogs who aren’t super food motivated.

Even if you don’t have food motivation issues, it’s worth taking the time to teach your dog to work for non-food reinforcers. Because the way to get the strongest, most reliable trained behaviors is to establish a long history of that behavior being reinforced by a wide variety of rewards. Not just treats, not just praise, not just access to the dog park, but ALL of those things at some point in time.

Foundation training helps with this. It’s designed to shift your training from “do the thing, get a treat” to “do the thing, get what you want.” It teaches you how to use distractions as rewards.

I’ll show you where to start with foundation training in the next lesson.

Defining “reinforcer”

Reinforcement is something that causes a behavior to occur more often. If it doesn’t cause a behavior to happen more often, it’s not reinforcement. So we have to be curious and creative and empathetic to find the things that would work for our dogs.

People often ask if they can just use praise and petting as a reward. If you find that that stuff alone works to increase your goal behaviors, then sure! Go for it!

But it doesn’t always work, and some dogs actually find a lot of physical affection to be punishing, not rewarding.

In old school training methods where we used praise and corrections, it sure looked like the dogs happily worked for praise. But really, they only liked praise because it signaled that they weren’t getting a collar correction. Their actual motivator was avoiding corrections.