When liver doesn't cut it

Boomer will work for peanut butter

Most of the time when positive reinforcement-based trainers talk about rewarding behavior we are referring to using food.  Since most dogs love to eat, and an edible tidbit is very easy to work with, food is the most commonly offered reinforcement. 

Many dogs will happily gobble up a pebble if it’s offered to them, but not all dogs are that easy to please.  The commercial dog treat that Shiloh loves may pale in comparison to a Cheerio as far as Max is concerned. You may think that Snoopy would go crazy for hot dogs, but he may actually prefer a piece of Milk Bone.  Not likely, but it happens.  It’s really all up to the dog.  And the value of a particular treat will vary to the dog depending on what is going on when it’s offered.  That Snausage that Princess would flip for in the house may flop as a reinforcement for walking with you outside, yet a nibble of string cheese or bit of freeze-dried liver may do the trick to keep her attention in those circumstances. 

So it takes a level of creativity and planning when getting ready to do a training session with your dog even when you are using food.  But what if your dog could care less about the food you’re offering him no matter what it is?

Developing food motivation

Food is very convenient to use as a reward because you can mark a behavior, pop it quickly in the dog’s mouth, and keep training without losing stride.  So some owners may want to try to increase their dog’s food motivation before giving up on it altogether. 

If your dog’s food is available to him all day long, that’s one good way to lessen its value to him.  Schedule his feedings.  Measure out half of what he requires daily and give it to him in the morning.  Pick up whatever is left after 10 minutes.  Then measure out the other half and give it to him at night, again picking up what is left over after 10 minutes.  Your dog will begin to finish his meals on schedule, and should develop more interest in food in general.

If this still doesn’t give him the motivation to work for food, another option would be to use meal times for your training, feeding him a piece of kibble at a time as a reward for performing a behavior.  If you don’t go through his portion by the end of the session, you can put the bowl down and let him finish the rest of it. 

I wouldn’t give up on food entirely until you have tried everything.  Boomer the boxer puppy was not all that interested in cheese, hot dogs, freeze-dried liver, or anything else we offered him until we tried peanut butter on a wooden spoon.  All of a sudden, the rest of the world faded away to him and we had a dog obsessed with earning himself a lick of the yummy stuff.  Rosie the playful labradoodle turned up her nose to all dog treats and people food until her owner offered her tiny pieces of apple. Two of my own dogs, Madigan and Murphy, both think radishes are manna from heaven.  (The third dog, MacKenzie, doesn’t even bother to look up when I offer raw vegetables any more.  She just rolls her eyes to let the other two know they have no taste at all.)  If you experiment, you can usually find a couple of treats that your dog likes well enough to work for them.

Note:  Some people have tried raisins and grapes as training treats.  This is not recommended, as those foods can be very toxic to certain dogs.

Using toys

If your dog absolutely positively does not care about food no matter what you try, then perhaps he would be motivated by playing with toys.   It’s more difficult to work with play as reinforcement because throwing a ball or having a game of tug, no matter how brief, interrupts training more than just popping a tidbit into your dog’s mouth would.  But if he likes it enough to work for it, that’s the definition of a reward that is valuable enough to reinforce a behavior. 

A German shepherd named Sonnet in my Tricks class would work for food to some extent, but what she really, really wanted was to play with the class Jolly Ball.  She absolutely loved to bat this toy all over the classroom, and if it was in sight and she couldn’t have it she would obsess on it.  So Mom took possession of the Jolly Ball, and when Sonnet performed one of the more difficult behaviors, her reward was getting the ball tossed to her and being allowed to chase it around for about 20 seconds.  Sonnet’s motivation to perform the behavior sharpened considerably when we substituted that ball for treats.

Other dogs


The most difficult dogs to motivate in my classroom are the ones who consider interaction with other dogs to be much more rewarding than anything else we can offer them.  I’ve often wished that I had a teacup chihuahua in my pocket that I could dangle as a reinforcement for these monkeys.  But since I doubt I’ll find one that would enjoy the experience, I’ve had to get more creative about it.

It’s tricky to set up, but compliance to a cue can be rewarded by an unsnapping of the leash and cue to “go play!”  Of course this will seriously interrupt the training flow, and requires two dogs and synchronistic timing, but it’s not impossible.

Interaction with another dog can be an appropriate reward in some cases.  I like to start two dog/handler teams on opposite ends of the room and walk them towards each other.  If one dog lunges, the owner turns and walks the opposite way with him, then starts again.  The dog is rewarded for walking with a loose leash by continuing to get closer to the other dog.  Once they get within a few feet of each other they are asked to sit, then released to “say hello” (a brief sniff only while on-leash). Though the main reward is the increasing proximity of the other dog, I use food and praise also to reinforce each micro-step towards the other team. 

When practicing recalls, I noticed that some dogs could not make it across the room to their owners if other dogs were on the sidelines.  They may get part way, but often couldn’t resist a quick detour to visit their buddies.  So for these overly friendly dogs, I set up the bystanders so that they are standing behind the dog being called, and one or two are standing behind the human who is calling him.  The motivation to run directly to the owner is increased if he is also running towards the other dogs.  And after reaching the owner and sitting, he can be rewarded further by being cued to “go play” with one of the other dogs who has earned her “go play” cue by performing a behavior for her owner.


Praise and petting

It’s unfortunate that there are still many out there who believe that their dogs want to please them so much that they will learn to perform any behavior just for a “good girl” and a pat on the head.  Though praise and petting is reinforcing to some extent to most dogs, it’s normally a poor paycheck for learning new or practicing difficult behaviors.  As far as physical touch goes, not all dogs are that crazy about a pat on the head to begin with, and some dogs who love to be petted in other circumstances actually pull away from being touched when they’re “working” – they find it aversive! 

I ask students who are reluctant to use reinforcements other than praise if they would lift their right arms briefly for a dollar.  Most of them would.  The behavior is so easy to do that just about anybody would accept a low value reward for it.  But would they jump up and down 20 times for a dollar?  I doubt it!  Doing 20 jumping jacks is pretty hard work, and most people would require a much higher value reward before they’d consent to do it.  Maybe $20, but certainly not $1.

If you wouldn’t be excited enough to work hard for a low value reward, what makes you think your dog would? 

That said, yes, there are some dogs who find praise and petting to be extremely reinforcing.  They are fairly rare, but they do exist.  In 8 years of training I have met exactly one dog who would work only for petting.  An adult English bulldog named Daisy cared less for food, toys, or other dogs, but she absolutely loved her belly rubs!  So after every behavior she performed on cue, she learned to gleefully throw herself on her back for her reinforcement. 

The value of value

And THAT said… once a dog knows a behavior so well that she performs it automatically without thought or hesitation, then praise and petting may be a perfectly appropriate reinforcement.  But while learning a new behavior, or proofing a learned behavior in a more challenging environment, the more valuable the reinforcement is to the dog, the more motivated she will be to do the work necessary to learn and/or become more fluent with the behavior.   

Keep in mind that the dog is the one who determines the value of the reinforcement you are using.  If she is reluctant, unfocused, or otherwise inattentive, then it could very well be that the reward she is being offered is not good enough.

Or that you’re asking too much too soon.   But that’s the focus of a whole different blog…


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