Positive Reinforcement Training Without Treats

use treats after I practice. So do my purchasers. Now that constructive reinforcement coaching has a 25-year-plus monitor document within the canine world (supported by research that affirm its effectiveness), the usage of treats in coaching has grow to be broadly accepted and embraced. 

There are instances, nevertheless, when you may’t use treats. Perhaps your canine isn’t significantly motivated by meals. Maybe there’s a medical purpose your canine can’t have meals proper now. Or maybe (horrors!) you ran out of treats. The excellent news is that meals isn’t the one type of reinforcement we are able to use in coaching – there are a variety of others methods you may reinforce your canine’s conduct.


The reality is, all canines should be meals motivated, not less than to some extent, or they really will starve. We all should eat to reside. 

But it’s true: Some canines are extra all in favour of meals than others: Labrador Retrievers are infamous for being “food hounds.” In reality, a latest research discovered this breed is extra prone to have a really robust curiosity in meals as a result of they’ve a particular gene mutation related to meals obsession. (Flat-coated Retrievers have it too, however it has not been present in another breeds.) Still, all canines should eat, so the primary questions we have to ask are:

* Why is my canine no more all in favour of coaching treats?

* Are there issues I can do to extend my canine’s curiosity in coaching treats?

* If I can’t get him to be extra all in favour of treats, or if he can’t have treats proper now for some purpose, or if, inexplicably, I ran out, are there different reinforcers I can use in my coaching program?

There are a number of the explanation why your canine may not look like motivated by meals throughout coaching:

* Medical causes. We at all times wish to take into account and rule out or deal with any attainable medical causes for or contributors to a behavioral problem, together with anorexia. If your canine really has little to little interest in meals, when you have not already, please talk about this together with your veterinarian as quickly as attainable. There is an extended record of attainable medical the explanation why your canine might not be all in favour of meals, and a few of them are very severe. 

* Treats are low in worth to your canine. Perhaps you’ve heard the suggestion to make use of your canine’s common kibble for coaching. This might effectively work for a Lab and for different very food-focused canines, however for canines who aren’t as all in favour of meals, kibble simply is likely to be too boring. 

* Easily bored together with your high-value deal with. Some canines get tired of (or simply too full to be very all in favour of) a large number of the identical scrumptious deal with. Be ready with an inventory of treats your canine considers high-value, and when her curiosity in a single begins to wane, swap to a different. 

Most canines love rooster (baked, boiled, or thawed-out frozen rooster strips), and but we frequently see canines tire of it at our academies, the place they’re plied with coaching treats all through the day. Other treats canines have a tendency to like embody roast beef, cheese, cooked hamburger, meatballs, peanut butter squirted from a tube, ham, child meals – the record is limitless. If your canine is lower than captivated with meals, the longer your record of potential high-value treats must be.

*Your canine is well distracted, or the surroundings holds too many or too extremely disturbing distractions. If your canine is on the mild-to-moderate finish of the food-interest continuum, environmental distractions can serve to deflect her need for treats, particularly if she is well distractible, and/or for those who haven’t carried out your homework to generalize her behaviors to quite a lot of completely different places. If that is the case together with your canine, strive higher-value treats and/or do extra coaching in a much less distracting surroundings earlier than generalizing to extra distractions. (Your yard might sound excellent – however not when there are squirrels racing across the bushes, or the neighbor’s canines are barking at you thru the fence.)

* Your canine isn’t hungry. This is an idea completely international to your common Labrador, however quite a lot of canines who are usually not as loopy about meals because the Lab might be much less captivated with working for treats if they simply completed a meal. This is a simple repair: Schedule your coaching classes earlier than mealtimes, not after, and don’t feed your canine simply earlier than coaching class.

* Your canine is harassed. This is among the mostly neglected causes for canines to show up their noses at their coaching treats. It is biologically applicable, for survival causes, for her urge for food to close down when your canine is harassed. When the mind alerts “danger,” the very last thing an organism ought to do – in the event that they wish to survive – is cease for a chew of meals, so the a part of the mind that controls urge for food turns off till the hazard is over. 

If your canine is reluctant to take treats as a result of she is harassed, you might be able to tempt her with higher-value treats, however the most effective answer is to determine the right way to make the stress go away – or not less than lower sufficient so she will fortunately eat once more. (If she will usually take a deal with gently, however in a irritating scenario goes from not taking the treats to blindly grabbing on the meals, typically getting your fingers within the course of, her stress stage remains to be too excessive for efficient studying; transfer farther from the stressor.)

Sometimes a canine will study to take treats within the face of her stressor simply by means of habituation (she simply will get used to it), though a concerted effort at counter-conditioning and desensitizing her to the stressor tends to be more practical and sooner. (See “Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization,” WDJ March 2020.)

In some instances, if the canine’s stress ranges are persistent, conduct modification medication are so as. This calls for one more dialogue together with your vet. If your veterinarian isn’t behaviorally educated, she will schedule a cellphone seek the advice of with a veterinary behaviorist for help in figuring out what remedy(s) is likely to be applicable in your canine. Your vet can discover a record of Certified Veterinary Behaviorists at dacvb.org/search.


One of the good issues about utilizing meals as a reinforcer in coaching is that the canine can eat the deal with rapidly and instantly go on to the following conduct. But something your canine perceives as “good stuff” can theoretically be used as a reinforcer. Play, for instance, is a wonderful, very robust “other” reinforcer for a lot of (however not all) canines. Keep in thoughts, nevertheless, that different reinforcers can take extra time to ship and regroup from, and thereby usually tend to interrupt the movement of coaching.

Now that the usage of meals in coaching has grow to be so widespread, it’s straightforward to neglect that there are a multitude of different methods to strengthen your canine’s conduct. 

The definition of a reinforcer is “something that causes a behavior to increase.” In constructive reinforcement coaching we train our canines that sure behaviors make “good things” (reinforcers) occur, so our canines study to supply these behaviors with a purpose to make great things occur. 

Food is what we name a main reinforcer, that means it has innate worth to the canine. Dogs don’t should study to love meals; they’re born searching for their mom’s milk. A scratch below the chin feels good – it has innate worth – in order that’s one other main reinforcer. 

Verbal reward, nevertheless, is a secondary reinforcer; it takes on worth by means of its affiliation with a main reinforcer resembling meals treats, pleasure, and scratches below the chin. Toys, too, are secondary reinforcers; they tackle worth by means of their affiliation with the predatory chase response. (Doubt this? Have you by no means met a canine who was initially mystified and bored with toys, however discovered to play with them over time?)


If you wish to (or should) make use of reinforcers apart from meals in your coaching, begin by making an inventory of all the opposite issues your canine loves. Here are some potential non-food reinforcers:

• Tennis balls, or balls with a satisfying squishy texture

• Squeaky toys

• Playing tug

• Playing “chase me” video games

• Going for a journey within the automobile (a chief pleasure for some canines, aversive for others; know your canine!) 

• Leash walks

• Off-leash hikes

• Swimming (once more, it’s essential to know your canine; some hate water!)

• Sniffing

• Performing a favourite trick for an appreciative viewers

For every merchandise on this record, write down the way you would possibly be capable to use that as a reinforcer in your coaching program. Some are simpler than others. Here are some examples:

* Use sniffing to strengthen your canine’s well mannered leash strolling. Have your canine stroll politely with you for an affordable stretch (brief sufficient that she will succeed!), then give her a launch cue and say, “Go sniff!” (This works particularly effectively at first for those who give her the “Go sniff” cue when you might be close to one thing that she want to sniff.)

*Use tug to strengthen your canine’s “Stay.” Have your canine keep for no matter size of time she is in a position (set her as much as succeed!), return to your canine, mark her for staying, give your launch cue, then invite her to tug. 

Remember to pause numerous lengths of time earlier than your launch cue, so she doesn’t begin anticipating the discharge. You may even remind her to remain, maintain up the tug, put it behind your again and maintain it up once more, a number of instances, so the mere sight of the tug toy doesn’t grow to be the cue to launch from the keep. This, by the best way, is a good impulse-control train.

* Use a squeaky toy to lure and reinforce sits and downs. To lure a sit, maintain the toy over your canine’s head the best way you’d a deal with, and when she sits, squeak and toss the toy. To lure a down, slowly transfer the toy towards the bottom and, when she lies down, squeak and toss. If that doesn’t work, transfer the toy below your knee or a stool, so she lies right down to crawl after the toy. When she does, squeak and toss.

* Use a tennis ball to strengthen your canine’s recall. She comes whenever you name, you mark her for coming, after which throw the ball for her to chase. If she’s a type of who received’t carry it again, have a number of balls inside attain so you may name her again and toss the following ball when she comes. If you need her to take a seat in entrance of you as a part of your recall, anticipate her to take a seat earlier than you mark and throw.

Now take your individual record of reinforcers and write down situations that incorporate them into your coaching program. You will probably discover some reinforcers which might be impractical for coaching (say, the canine who likes to roll in deer poop), however you need to find yourself with a treasure trove of prospects!

If there are secondary reinforcers you want to use that your canine isn’t already captivated with, you may “charge” them by associating with one thing your canine already loves. If you need your canine to be happier about your verbal reward, repeatedly reward her after which throw her beloved ball, so she begins to affiliate reward with the enjoyment of chasing a squeaky ball. If she’s not loopy about automobile rides, begin taking brief automobile rides that at all times find yourself at someplace great (such because the swimming gap, if she loves swimming). 

You get the concept. Whether your canine received’t take or can’t have treats, for those who search for and create a great lengthy record of different high-value choices, you’ll at all times be ready to strengthen your canine for applicable and desired behaviors. She will love you much more for that. 

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