Every year, I head to a terrific conference called ClickerExpo that's targeted at clicker trainers. It's fantastic every year, and this year is no different. At this morning's sessions, I went to a session called Working for the Joy of It: A Systematic Look at Non-Food Reinforcers by Ken Ramirez (Shedd Aquarium Training Director). It was a great talk with lots of valuable information for how to use things other than food to train your dog. Here are a couple really good ideas I got from Ken:
- Don't assume you know your dog's preferences. In other words, your dog gets to choose what's reinforcing to him, not you. Which is hard for some people to accept. They'll say "He's a Lab, he should love to swim" even though it's clear their dog doesn't like getting wet. Or they'll say, "my dog has to work for praise because I don't want to train with food." Uh-uh: your dog chooses what he likes, not you.
- Never take reinforcers for granted. Just because a piece of chicken works well right now, it doesn't mean it will work well all the time. What if your dog just finished dinner? That chicken's not as appealing if your dog is full.
- Avoid reinforcement pitfalls:
- don't take reinforcers for granted (see #2 above).
- constantly evaluate the effectiveness of the reinforcers
- vary the reinforcers – don't always give a piece of kibble when your dog sits. Sometimes give him a piece of chicken, sometimes give him access to a favorite toy, sometimes run and let him chase you.
- control your dog's access to reinforcers. How valuable is $5 if you always have a $20 in your pocket?
- Look at the behavior and let it tell you if the reinforcer is working: are you getting more behavior or less behavior as a result of the reinforcer?
When I get home, I'm going to systematically evaluate the reinforcers I use for my dogs. I'll bet I'll make some changes based on what I learned from Ken today.