One of the biggest issues I see are teams with a boring reinforcement strategy.  All too often I see reliance on the cookie without actually thinking about REINFORCEMENT.  A cookie is a Reward…  but it has limited value to the dog if you simply hand it over.  They might like food…  a lot….  but if you simply hand over a cookie, how is that more valuable than the food on the ground or some interesting odor that they encounter?  It’s not.

One of the most neglected aspects of how people reward their dogs is the lack of FUN.  FUN is reinforcing to dogs…  keep in mind that “a reward” is something that you give a dog in exchange for something that they did.  A “reinforcement” is something that increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.  If we can turn our rewards into reinforcements, we have the opportunity to make that cookie go nuclear!  For me, I want my dog to have the strongest desire possible to go out and find that hide!

It’s way easier to do this with toys if you have a dog with the right drives to want to work for toys.  Toys naturally force us to interact with the dog.  Toys, if used in an interactive manner, mean that FUN is a built in factor.  That is why toys are so powerful!  Keep in mind:


However, not all dogs really want to work for toys.  But that doesn’t mean that you should skip the FUN!  You can PLAY WITH THE COOKIE!

And guess what???  You DO NOT need to train like you trial.  You can break all of the rules in training.  Then when in a trial, you can modify your reinforcement to keep it more brief and within the rules of the organization (such as not dropping food on the ground).  However, since you now have a Nuclear Cookie and you have reinforced (meaning that the likelihood for the behavior, in this case seeking out the hide with motivation, to be increased), the motivation sticks.

One of my good friends, Lauren Walsh, takes Food Play to the next level.  When we were training together recently, we were able to get some video of each of her dogs and their preferred modes of Food Play.  Also, keep in mind that these dogs range from NW3 to Elite Champion….  which means that this sort of play should NEVER STOP.  We don’t just do this in the beginning.  Motivation is something to cultivate and maintain.

Example #1: Swagger

Swagger at the time of this video is a young NW3 dog.  He is confident and lives up to his name. He also has significant drive.  Note that Lauren has a clear marker “Yes” to indicate to her dog that he was correct and that he is about to be reinforced.  She feeds him at the hide and then gives the cue “Party”.  Party means that she is about to play with him.  Swagger likes jumping at Lauren and chasing her fingers with food.  He likes the physical aspect of his style of food play.  Also notice that when the food play is done, Lauren does a down shift in his energy, sets him up in an organized fashion and then cues him to find another hide.

Example #2: Raleigh

Raleigh at the time of this video is a 12 year old Elite dog who is very close to ELT3.  She is softer in temperament than Swagger and doesn’t want a lot of touching during her reinforcement.  Lauren has paid attention to what she likes.  Raleigh likes to chase food tosses.  Lauren asks me if I minded if she threw food and my immediate answer was “go for it”.  When we build motivation for target odor with our dogs, any cheese residue on the ground shouldn’t even be noticed (and it wasn’t by any of the other 7 dogs that we were working that day!). Also notice that there is a clear start and stop to play so that Raleigh can work the second hide in the area.

Example #3: Cash

Cash at the time of this video is an Elite Champion preparing for Summit competition.  Yes, he STILL GETS PLAY!  Remember that motivation is cultivated and maintained…  it’s not something that we just do in the beginning.  Cash doesn’t like a lot of body pressure and could be shut down with some types of physical play.  He likes to chase the cookie in Lauren’s hand.  So by moving away and making the cookie act prey-like, Cash gets excited about his reinforcement event.

A challenge to you all….  experiment with how you reinforce your food reward dog.  See what they like and their preferences.  Don’t be afraid to get a little silly!  And a good rule of thumb when building motivation is to reinforce for longer than the dog searches.