Food rewards are great reinforcement tools – no doubt about it. But, what if your dog isn’t food motivated? Or, what if you’re out with your dog and you forgot to bring treats with you? How do you reward him or her? The answer is simple.
When you’re working your dog outside, use the environment and everything in it as a reward system. Inside, use touch, a favorite toy, or verbal praise as a reward.
When I have a dog who likes to bolt out the door, I turn the door into a reward. When the dog goes into a voluntary sit and waits patiently, he’s rewarded with the door opening. When he breaks the position and tries to go to the door, the door closes and he gets nothing. I do this repeatedly until the dog learns that the door opening is a reward, and he has to earn it. From there, every step closer to the door is a reward the dog must earn. If he tries to bolt, the door closes, we back up to our original position, and we start over again. The dog learns very quickly that he doesn’t get to put even one paw outside if he’s not calm and patient. Working this way turns the door into a very high-value reward.
Outside, every step, every permitted sniffing session, even watching people or other animals go by – it all turns into a very high-value reward system. The dog gets to go forward when she’s not pulling. She gets to sniff when she’s given permission. She gets to observe people and other animals when she’s not barking, lunging, or pulling on the lead. Using the outside world as a reward system has far greater value to a dog than food; even the most highly food-motivated dogs prefer to sniff, move, and observe over taking food. And let’s be honest, here: outside is a highly stimulating place, and while the dog may accept food, that doesn’t mean they’re connecting the dots about why they’re getting it.
It makes me cringe when I see owners trying to get the attention of their over-excited, over-stimulated dogs. I watch quietly as the dog either takes the food without any engagement with their owner, or they reject it completely because they’re too focused on whatever is triggering their behavior. Then, I watch as the owner either starts repeatedly correcting the dog, or they just stand there and do nothing because they don’t know how else they can get their dog’s attention. I see this far too often, and it makes me sad. If they had only learned how to turn the outside into a reward instead of trying to use food…
Food is a great motivator. There’s no denying that. But if your dog is going off the rails with excitement at the door, food isn’t going to teach them that behavior isn’t correct. Instead, you need to put the food away and start using what the dog wants – in this case, “outside”.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m happy to come and help you and your dog learn how to connect and engage with each other, no matter how great the distractions. 🙂 In the meantime, have a great day, and remember to stay calm and lead on.