Creative Reinforcement (Or, a Little Butt Scratching Goes a Long Way)

I like to tell my clients that food is only one nation in an entire world of reinforcement. Generally, I use quite a lot of very tiny food treats to teach a new concept – it allows me to obtain a nice, high rate of reinforcement with very few interruptions. It’s efficient, easy, and dogs like it. Before you start training with food, there are a few things you should know:

  • We use food (A LOT) to train, we use “life” (rewards) to maintain.
  • Since I plan on feeding my dogs their entire life and because I know (not suspect, not guess, but KNOW) that working for food enhances the dog-owner bond, I will use their food in training throughout their lives but I will not need to rely on food in order to rely on their behaviors.
  • Sometimes you will want to train or reinforce a behavior and food is not the best or most appropriate choice.
  • Sometimes you will want to train or reinforce a behavior and food is not available.

Let’s examine a situation that illustrates the last point in our bulleted item list.




Casey and Cuba

CUBA (a.k.a. “Cuba Gooddog Junior”) : Cuba is an intact male adolescent Saint Bernard. He is adorable, funny, and a consummate cuddler. He is also, occasionally, obnoxious. Like many teenagers, Cuba is trying to find out where his boundaries are. He likes to explore his environment and try many new things, not all of which are acceptable to his people or furry housemates. Cuba is generally very gentle with cats, and his “bromance” with Ahab (our three-legged kitty) is virtually legendary – it is not uncommon to find those two snuggling together, cleaning each other, or spooning on the couch when they think nobody is looking. (Evidence Exhibit A)

Eartha Kitty
EARTHA KITTY: Eartha is our resident diva cat. She is soft, sweet, and not surprisingly, has a wonderful little kitty voice. She likes treats, counter surfing, and Ahab. Eartha also was absolutely terrified of our last Saint Bernard, Monte, who would chase her and bark at her. Since we have had Cuba, I have been working hard on training Mokie and Cuba to focus around Eartha, rather than bothering or chasing her. Eartha has slowly been adventuring out into the house more and is gaining confidence.


Both perpetrators are in the living room. I am sitting in front of the fireplace next to Cuba, approximately 20 feet away from the nearest available food reinforcement. Eartha is approximately 10 feet away from Cuba and I, on an elevated surface (table), staring at us with no easy escape route. Cuba is looking at Eartha, alert, weight shifted forward, ears pricked forward, looking as if he is considering, for the first time, launching into a great chase. I cannot possibly get to the nearest food reinforcement without walking past Eartha, which would likely be just the catalyst needed to set Cuba into motion. The inevitable result of this, I imagine would be:

  • Cuba scares the crap out of Eartha
  • Eartha “freaks out,” knocking all of my beautiful houseplants (which are well-developed and in pretty expensive pots) all over the place, dirt and pottery crashing and flying everywhere, my laptop in ruins on the floor, shorting out pathetically
  • All of Eartha’s newly found confidence is shattered
  • Cuba learns that chasing cats is a great party starter


I’m sad to say that here at the Lomonaco mansion, we, like many local families, are struggling with a post-flood flea infestation that is the stuff of nightmares. Cuba has been extremely itchy lately. I know that the nature of good reinforcement is stopping and asking yourself, “What does my dog want RIGHT NOW?” I needed to find something he wanted more than he wanted to chase the cat, and food wasn’t an option. I was not near any of his favorite toys, either.

What I did have available to me were fingernails. We started playing a game – every time Cuba would break his focus/stare at the cat, I would start scratching his butt. I would continue scratching his butt, the rear of his legs, and his belly as long as he was looking away from Eartha. The instant he looked back at her, I stopped and waited. Quickly, he whipped his head around to me – butt scratch time started again! We practiced this for a couple of minutes and it was easy to tell that the butt scratches were functioning as reinforcement – the behavior of looking toward me/away from the cat became more likely. It got to where he would glance at the cat and immediately turn back to me for more scritches. Within three minutes, no treats, Cuba offered to lie down and roll over so I could scratch his belly. About thirty seconds later, he was snoring. Problem solved. Easy Peasy (forgive my use of such technical jargon).


Clicker training is not all about the clicker. It’s not even all about the food. I could have clicked (with my tongue, I had no clicker available, either), but there was really no need – no time to bridge, I could deliver the reinforcement as the desirable behavior was occurring.

Will I be keeping treats nearer to the fireplace in case I need them in the future? Sure. Was I able to use positive reinforcement to create a desirable behavior quickly without them? Absolutely.

So as we wrap this blog entry up, stop for a moment and look around. Can you see a world of reinforcement surrounding you? While I believe a treat pouch full of yummies is an important training tool, some of life’s most powerful rewards are not food, don’t fit in a pouch around your waist, but live in your environment, waiting to go to work for you in building better behaviors from your dog. Need help taking advantage of reinforcement opportunities to see more desirable behavior from your dog? Contact us to learn how!

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