When training our dogs, it's crucial to consider their currency. What does that mean? How does your dog like to get paid? What do they find most reinforcing?
When we go to work, we get paid in the form of money - paycheques and monetary bonuses. If the paycheque stopped suddenly, we would question and likely stop working. Imagine if your boss sent you an envelope containing Monopoly money on payday in place of your regular cheque!
Let's consider some variables - sometimes the US dollar is more reinforcing than the Canadian dollar (like right now) and other times it's the reverse. Sometimes winning a trip to Hawaii is more exciting than the equivalent of a cash prize. Sometimes a simple "thank you" is enough, whereas other times a gift certificate to your favourite restaurant would be more fitting.
When it comes to dogs, there are so many options for reinforcement out there - all you have to do is get to know your dog! Some dogs will do backflips for food, other dogs are very toy-motivated, and I've even met a few dogs (albeit only enough to count on one hand) who are truly motivated by affection and praise. When students and their dogs come into our school, we often ask "what's on the menu?" - if the treat pouch contains kibble, dry biscuits, dense treats (Zuke's Mini Naturals or Beggin' Strips), we know the dog will likely stop working about 10-15 minutes into the class and the student will become frustrated. If the treat pouch contains boiled turkey breast, ground beef, cheddar cheese, grilled chicken hearts or baked codfish, we can almost guarantee that the dog will be working willingly for the full 60 minutes. Kibble and Zukes may work at home in a low-distraction environment, however, in a more stimulating environment, we have to bring the big guns.
Sometimes our dogs surprise us. My soul dog, Parker, was very motivated by the scent of urine and it took me ages to figure out. What did I do? I ordered various animal urine online, spritzed some on a handkerchief, popped it into a Ziploc baggie and off we went on our walk. When he engaged with me with eye contact, out came the baggie and he got a deep whiff. Nothing thrilled him more. (Gross, I know!!)
One of our instructors, Cara, found out after much trial and error that her Husky mix, Tyson, would work endlessly for bread (bagels, pizza crust, toast), whereas meat and cheese-based treats lost their appeal almost immediately into the training session.
Now let's not forget environmental or "life rewards"! You're getting ready to head into to the dog park and when you get to the gate, you ask your dog to sit as you unclip the leash. What could you do to reinforce such polite sitting behaviour? You could click and feed, however at that moment, what would be most reinforcing for a dog who loves the park? Opening the gate and giving your release cue! That in itself is likely the most reinforcing thing you could offer. While your dog may be food motivated, at that moment, food would take a back seat to off-leash play with her canine besties!
What if your dog is at the park and is having a less-than-stellar time and seems to be frequently disengaging from interactions with other dogs? You could ask for a behaviour such as eye contact, a hand target, sit, anything at all, and as a reward, what could you offer? Leashing up and leaving the park!
The bottom line is that our dogs choose what they find reinforcing - we don't.
Oftentimes I ask my students which I would find most reinforcing - ice cream or broccoli? The answer may surprise you. It will almost always be broccoli. Don't get me wrong - I love ice cream and have many a sweet tooth, however, broccoli is my absolute favourite food, and unless it's a sweltering hot day, I will choose it over most anything.
Why not take a little time and discover your dog's currency? Don't forget that it may vary based on the environment! The more challenging the environment, the higher value the currency must be...and it's always according to what your dog chooses - not what you feel they should choose.