In dog training lingo, an "unconditioned reinforcer" is something your dog thinks is awesome in and of itself. Unconditioned reinforcers are also called primary reinforcers, inherent rewards or first tier motivators. Examples include food, water, treats, playing with a toy, retrieving objects, being petted and enthusiastic praise. If your dog finds something inherently rewarding, it's an unconditioned reinforcer. Primary rewards are often seen in purely positive training styles, a style in which good or desirable behavior is rewarded and undesirable behavior is ignored and allowed to fade away.
If a trainer tells you your pooch has a lot of "food drive," he's simply stating that your dog loves food and works happily for it. When you get down to it, though, every single dog in the world has food drive. Everybody's gotta eat and a hungry dog works for food. Food and treats make excellent unconditioned reinforcers for most dogs. Simply using your dog's regular meal to train with throughout the day keeps your dog keenly focused on you, her handler, and on the lessons being reinforced.
Not all food has the same value, and like people, dogs have personal preferences. Treats that your dog finds only mildly interesting are called "low value" treats and items your dog would do backflips to earn are "high value" treats. Low value treats include dry kibble, hard store-bought treats and diced veggies. High-value treats are typically smelly, high in protein or a little bit sweet. Shredded chicken, diced cheese, hard-boiled eggs, frozen peanut butter or yogurt drops and sweetened cereal all make excellent high-value training treats.
Dogs are inherently social animals. While not every dog enjoys verbal praise or being petted, many dissolve into wiggling, wagging messes when their handler gives an enthusiastic, high-pitched "good dog" and a vigorous back scratch. Spend time bonding and playing with your pup outside of training sessions so you can learn whether or not your dog enjoys petting, rubdowns or verbal affection. Respect your dog's personal preferences. Some dogs enjoy soft, gentle touch to their head, neck and ears, while others revel in a spirited, energetic wrestling match with full-body contact.
For dogs with high prey or play drive, nothing beats a quick round of fetch or a lively game of tug-of-war. Herding dogs and retrievers in particular seem to prefer toys over food during training sessions. If you have a dog who'll fetch until her legs fall off, try using her favorite ball, rope or toy to reinforce new cues and behaviors. Keep toy-based reward sessions short and to the point to avoid overstimulating your pooch to the point that additional training is impossible. Consider keeping one special toy that's only utilized during training sessions so your pup learns to quickly calm down and return to business once the game ends.
An unconditioned reinforcer is anything your dog finds highly rewarding. If your dog really digs running in the yard with another dog, chasing and popping bubbles, "hunting" a laser pointer light or going on a car ride, add those situations to your list of potential primary rewards. Throughout the day, use everyday events to reinforce good behavior. Allow your dog to romp in the yard with the neighbor's dog if she sits politely at the door. After a particularly stellar sit-stay or heeling session, break out the laser pointer and play some chase. While at the dog park, use entering the park to reward waiting quietly in the car until released. If it makes your dog truly excited, happy and enthused, use it as a primary motivator.
By Kea Grace
Dog Academy: Dog Learning Theory
Penn Vet Working Dog Center: Primary Reinforcer
The Dog Smith: The Difference Between Conditioned and Unconditioned Reinforcers
Outside K9: The Five Basic Motivators
R+ Dog Training: A Guide to Operant Training With Positive Reinforcement
About the Author
Since 2001, Kea Grace has published in "Dog Fancy," "Clean Run," "Front and Finish" and an international Czechoslovakian agility enthusiast magazine. Grace is the head trainer for Gimme Grace Dog Training and holds her CPDT-KA and CTDI certifications. She is a member of the APDT and is a recognized CLASS instructor. She's seeking German certification from the Goethe Institut.