Technically speaking, a reinforcer is anything that improves a dogs behavior. The top ones are food, attention, and play. I recommend using all of them.
When in class, we primarily use food. Food is primal. Since your dog needs it to survive, it is hard-wired into your dog to seek it out and get it. Leverage this and you facilitate high motivation.
Training on the Cheap
I try hard to keep the expense of my classes down. I realize that there are many wonderful treats that can be bought in about any pet store. I also realize that it's easy to run through $5 worth of treats in a class. Remember, we do indeed use a lot of treats.
The best approach to training treats is to use lunch meats. Clients are welcome to purchase treats if they want to. As long as the treats prove to be high enough quality to motivate the dog, I’m fine with their use. My experience has been, however, that it is usually cheaper and more efficient to just start with the meat.
You will want to have at least two levels of value for your treats. We always begin with the lowest value treat. If that loses its appeal, we move up to the next higher value. If we have a third treat, we can move to the highest value if need be.
When giving treats in class, I recommend really small pieces. The size will be relative to your dog. The standard measure is a bit larger than the size of a pea. We’re not feeding the dog. We’re just giving them a taste. We also want to avoid anything that requires a lot of chewing. Little meaty bits go down quickly, which means getting back to the training faster.
Having said that, you want to make sure to avoid using pieces that are "too small". If it's not big enough, your dog can easily lose interest.
If you decide you want to purchase treats, I recommend Stewart's Freeze-Dried Treats. They come in different flavors. Dogs tend to love them. Remember, use your thumbnail to break off pea-sized bits. The easiest to break up cleanly is the beef flavor, so that's the one I most recommend.
I typically recommend the following:
- Hot dogs: These can be bought cheaply enough (about $1.00 per pack). If you slice them longways twice, you have four long strips. Then, you can run those through an egg slicer. This makes little triangles that are just the right size for larger dogs. For smaller dogs, just pinch them in two. Just put them in a baggie and the baggie in your pocket.
- Turkey slices: This is my sandwich meat of choice. When you tear off bits, they should be about the size of your thumbnail.
- Vienna sausages: These are a little harder to break off into clean pieces. You might find yourself mashing it between your fingers and letting your dog lick it off. For practice, just drop a couple in a baggie. For storage, small lids for cat food works to cover the can.
- Meatballs: I tend to reserve these for emergency recalls. However, they could also be used for regular training. They tear off relatively easily, and can also be mashed.
- Rolls of dog food: If you go into a pet store, you can find rolls of dog food (not the refrigerated ones). Those can be sliced (like a summer sausage), and then diced. An advantage here is that the food is meant to be nutritious.
- Liver cake: My dogs go crazy over this. You cut it into 6 “bars”, you can put one in the refrigerator and the others in the freezer. This is extremely high value and extremely cheap (less than $4 per pan).
Liver Cake Recipe
- 1 lb beef liver
- 1 ½ cup cornmeal
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
Blend everything in a food processor. Pour in a well-greased 9” x 9” pan. Bake at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes. Test with a fork (if it comes out clean, it should be done) and leave it in for a couple more minutes if needed. Once done, it till look like brown cornbread. Cut it into 6 “bars”. Place one in a baggie for the refrigerator, and the rest go into bags in the freezer. (If it isn’t quite done, just pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes.) For treats, pinch off tiny pieces (about the size of an M&M).
A Note About Dog Weight
Using food regularly for training means that calorie intake increases. Remember to keep an eye on your dog’s weight. Generally, dogs should take in about 20 kcals per pound of dog. You will have to guess at how much to skim off the top of their daily food to account for training. You will want to be able to see a good tummy tuck and be able to feel the ribs with a light layer of fat over it. Here is a weight chart like the one my vet hands out as a guide.
This becomes especially important while the canine companion is a puppy. Remember that puppy bones are still developing and they have to bear whatever weight the dog is wearing. If a puppy is overweight, this can lead to later health issues, especially for large- and giant-breed dogs.