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"What do we do if we don't have treats?"

Today's topic is one that I talk about A LOT, and it's one major bump that people tend to run into when transferring their training to real life. What do you do if you don't have treats on you? First of all, if your dog needs to see the food upfront to comply with what you're asking them to do, it means your training mechanics and timing are off. In all of our training sessions you should be cognizant of what exactly you're doing and how well you're training; if you are showing the food before the dog has offered the behavior that's a bribe, not a reinforcer/reward. And if you're using the food to lure the position you MUST fade the lure after several successful repetitions so that your dog doesn't become dependent on it. By keeping your mechanics clean in training sessions you can make it so that your dog never looks for the food before offering the behavior because they know the food is a consequence to their behavior, not part of the cue!

On top of that, outside of formal training sessions you want to be practicing randomly and reinforcing often to help build up a strong reinforcement history for the behavior. Help your dog understand that even when you aren't wearing your training pouch reinforcers are available. Place reinforcers in convenient locations that will aid in training polite behavior. If you're having trouble getting your dog to come in from the yard, keep a box of cookies or their favorite toy near the back door and teach your dog that you will pay them for coming inside when called. If your dog counter surfs while you're cooking, keep a bowl of dog-friendly treats in a bowl near you (I like dicing carrots up small for this!) and pay your dog for staying on their mat while you cook. A little forethought will help you place reinforcers in an effective way.

Lastly, don't forget about environmental reinforcers! Often something we call a "distraction" for our dogs is actually just an environmental reinforcer, and we can teach our dogs to earn that reinforcer by doing as we ask first! The opportunity to say hi to a neighbor (for dogs who like the neighbor!), the opportunity to go play with another dog (for dogs who like dogs!), or the opportunity to go out in the backyard are all reinforcers that have nothing to do with food!

The goal with training is to practice the behaviors so often, in so many contexts, and around so many distractions that responding to your cues becomes an automatic response for your dog, rather than something they will really spend time considering and weighing their options with. This is similar to when we first learn how to drive; it usually takes a lot of concentration, remembering which pedal is gas and which is the brake, how to change your mirror positioning, and staying focused on the traffic ahead and behind you. With enough experience, though, it becomes second nature. We can create the same kind of responsiveness with our dogs through time, practice, and consistency, so that even without reinforcers present at all times our dog can still respond to us, taking the chance that the behavior will pay off in the end!


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