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The Training Game: A New Perspective

Tell me why?

“My dog loves to eat his kibble while training at home. I am so surprised that he will not eat it in the group sessions.”

 “Our dog stays motivated and focused for training when the house is quiet. But as soon as there are distractions, she does not want to eat the kibble.”

 “Why does my puppy focus so well for the trainers during classes? She really seems to enjoy her interactions with them.”

on going manners

At a local park, Laura Monaco Torelli training Bludger
the ridgeback for distraction training, with high value treats.
(click here to enlarge)

Professional trainers hear comments like these from our dog teams every day. Owners are completely baffled as to why their puppies or dogs refuse to focus on them amid the distractions of daily life. How can this be, they wonder? Their dogs love the dog food at breakfast and dinner, so there should be no need to introduce new treats. These owners truly believe that feeding kibble is reinforcing in any environment.

As professional trainers, we hear about setting animals up for success. We know to break down behaviors and to split each step into small approximations that slowly stack up the shaping staircase we thoughtfully outlined. We prepare our training sessions meticulously with Plans A, B, and C to ensure that dogs joining a group class can be comfortable amid numerous distractions. The training team is ready for the class to begin.

But as the dog teams (owners and families) enter the classroom with their dogs, we realize quickly that it is the person on the other end of the leash who is not ready. But why? In our Start Right! Orientation class we shared with each dog team what to expect, and what to do before coming to a training session. Was our instruction not clear? Clearly, something was not communicated about starting right. The question was what to do to correct the problem.

Learning—and teaching—the game

I recall vividly the first time I heard about the Training Game. It was in the summer of 1991, and I was attending a training seminar taught by Ken Ramirez at the Shedd Aquarium. He explained the rules of the game and off we went, paired in teams. All I had to do was teach my partner to roll a ball toward me. Sounds simple, right? Good gravy! My poor, frustrated partner was ready to throw the ball at me, because I was not effectively marking the behavior with the whistle. Lesson learned—I needed more experience observing and learning from others before I could teach others.

I needed more experience observing and learning from others before I could teach others.

Fast forward to 2009. As I was teaching a training workshop for zookeepers, we ventured into navigating a training challenge with one of the primates. The animal was not reliably coming to station for training. Our discussion revealed the need for a primary reinforcement hierarchy. The primate was being offered low-value food reinforcement at the start of each session. As a result, the stationing behavior became less enjoyable, and then began to extinguish. Once we defined and offered favorable food items, the frequency of the stationing behavior increased and became reliable again.

We played the Training Game with the staff to demonstrate these connections, and started by offering the least-desired treats to the subject for coming to the trainer. The behavior of approaching the trainer slowed down significantly, and the subject started to look frustrated. As soon as the trainer started offering high-value treats, the stationing behavior increased significantly. And, the zookeeper who played the animal role looked relaxed and happy engaged in training!

Karen Pryor wrote about the Training Game in her amazing book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. She also discusses the Training Game on the Clickertraining website. What she wrote in Don’t Shoot the Dog resonates with me:

“The experience of nonverbal learning is especially helpful for people who do a lot of verbal instructing in their professional lives: teachers, therapists, supervisors. Once you have been the “ animal,” you can sympathize, even empathize, with any subject that is exhibiting the behavior you are shaping but has not yet comprehended what it is supposed to be doing, so that it easily makes mistakes.”


“Finally, one has only to look at a roomful of people intent on the shaping going on, with everyone motionless but the subject, and the trainer’s whole body and mind focused on the task, to see that this is an experience akin to painting or writing. It is creative work. Except on stage, creativity is rarely shared as a group experience. The Training Game is valuable for that aspect alone.”

A different perspective: is the solution really a game?

I began to think about ways to teach our dog teams, average dog families, the value of a primary reinforcement hierarchy. How could I teach them about empathy for their canine companion and for themselves? What would be easy for them to understand without getting into too much scientific speak? I needed something translatable, identifiable, and, most of all, fun and do-able.

How could I translate the goal without talking too much? At the same time, how could I set up for success on the handler end so that owners could do their creative work with their dogs? How could I teach them from a different perspective? I wanted owners to enjoy the process of training, to have enjoyable experiences, therefore increasing the likelihood of them repeating the behavior—training their dogs more often! A win-win scenario.

The idea of the Training Game came to me at the most unexpected moment. And it was a blessing.

A few months ago I was teaching a Start Right! Orientation. We had a variety of reinforcers prepared for the Training Game.

Baila Silverman and Callie

Anna and Baila training with Callie the Bouvier.
(click here to enlarge)

As Karen Pryor writes in Reaching the Animal Mind:

“The elation has nothing to do with primary reinforcers. Learning in this fashion provides primary reinforcement, of course; but it also seems to be just plain fun.”

Reinforcers are fun, too! Normally I would not use food, but the use of human food in the Training Game helps translate the goal: each dog team must define its dog’s food preferences for training. And in doing so, the dog team had to ensure that these food choices were within healthy limits for their canine companion. We had everything from fruits and vegetables to soda, snacks, and candy.

We started the game. As I asked the person who had volunteered to be the animal to leave the room, she mentioned, “By the way, strawberries don’t agree with me.” What did she just say about strawberries? The rules of the Training Game had now changed! (How ironic that we ask dog teams if their canine companions have food allergies or restrictions, but we had not asked about the people!) When my volunteer returned to the classroom, I offered her a strawberry. She declined, of course.  

As we played the Training Game, periodically I made a motion to hand a strawberry to the person in the animal role (an aversive association). Normally we do not talk during the Training Game, but I asked her how she felt when I made these overtures with a strawberry. She replied that she felt confused, and that the presence of the strawberry was punishing—not reinforcing, not enjoyable.

We were on to something. If the food that a trainer uses to train a subject (a dog or a person) is not of high enough value, the very act of training may reduce the value of the reinforcer amid distractions. Both the handler and the dog are confused and unclear about what behaviors should be reinforced. When training time becomes frustrating for the owner/handler because the puppy or dog is not interested, the training attempts cease. It’s not possible to reinforce a dog when there is no training time! In the end, the handler is punished for trying to train the dog without having the right primary reinforcers to be successful.

Shifting to a positive message: tag the families

My training sessions integrate the topic of anthropomorphism. In his book, Animal Training: Successful Animal Management through Positive Reinforcement, Ken Ramirez defines the term as:

“…when we assign human qualities, characteristics, or motivation to animals. The public does it, trainers do it, and so do some scientists. Yet, we find ourselves constantly fighting the urge to use anthropomorphic language. We are constantly told it is bad. Why is that? I believe it is because anthropomorphic thinking can be a trainer’s biggest stumbling block.”

It’s a stumbling block we see frequently. Families say, “My dog knows that kibble is reinforcing.” Does the dog really think that? Well, we have no idea what a dog thinks. What we do know is what behavior the dog is offering. If the dog is refusing to eat kibble in group sessions, and amid other distractions in the home environment, it is time to assess objectively why this is occurring.

Max Guida Training

Laura and Max taking a break from his job well done!
More play time!
(click here to enlarge)

Can we teach families to realize that they don’t know what their dogs think, but that they should trust the messages within the dogs’ behavior? And, is it possible to teach families to be prepared for training sessions without patronizing them? Without repeating, “Why did you forget to bring high-value treats to class?” How can trainers stop all the other reminders of what families are doing wrong? How does a trainer switch the paradigm to reinforcing the families for being prepared, for practicing the suggested goals at home, for coming to training sessions and classes ready armed with the right treats? The Training Game and TAGteaching are tools that have helped me achieve success with these goals and questions.

During a recent Start Right! Orientation, we had six new dog teams. In that class we used the Training Game to talk about defining a primary reinforcement hierarchy. The person who volunteered to play the animal role chose Starburst® candies as her preferred reward—and an onion as her least preferred reward. The behavior I shaped for her was to stand on the training mat. We enjoyed the message from her very clear body language when I offered her the onion!

Toward the end of the game I asked my volunteer if she liked Dunkin’ Donuts, as I had a gift card in my pocket to offer her. She explained that she is lactose intolerant, and does not visit Dunkin’ Donuts for that reason. Since she had told us earlier that nectarines are her favorite treat (after the Starburst candies), we offered her the delicious nectarine for being a good sport. Good thing I asked, or handing her a low-value reinforcer would have concluded our training game on a far-from-positive note!

The goal was to empower and reinforce the dog teams so that they would empower and reinforce the dogs!

My TAGteach™ (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) skills also come into play. While we provide high-value dog treats in our sessions, I wanted the dog teams to learn to provide and use them themselves—at home and in classes. If the owners depended on our treats in class, offering a primary reinforcement hierarchy at home may not happen. The goal was to empower and reinforce the dog teams so that they would empower and reinforce the dogs!

Reinforcement hierarchy for the dogs and the dog teams

In her thought-provoking new book, Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching, Dr. Julie Vargas discusses the following topics (among many others):

Shaping in the Classroom

  • Clarity: Setting One Behavioral Goal at a Time
  • What to Use as Reinforcement in the Classroom

Shaping Simple Skills with TAGteaching

  • Making the Click a Conditioned Reinforcer
  • Setting Initial Goals: TAG Points
  • Pacing and Its Effects
  • Arranging for High Rates of Performance in a Classroom Full of Students
  • Adjusting According to Moment to Moment Progress
  • Keeping Teaching Individualized and Flexible

Dr. Vargas’s book has been an amazing and inspiring resource for me. We have learned from her explanations and terms, and applied her ideas often in our classroom training.  

Clarity: Each team is asked to bring high-value treats to training sessions. As each dog team enters our sessions, we ask to see the delicious treats that they brought. The TAGpoint is: Feed high-value treats.

What to Use as Reinforcement in the Classroom: When teams proudly offer their dogs high-value treat, in return we immediately offer the teams:

  • Entry into a raffle for various FREE gifts and prizes!
  • A dog toy or an enrichment toy of their choice
  • The chance to walk across the room to meet another dog that welcomes attention while we hold and train their dog. This allows the other dog team to “Show and Tell” their meet and greet behavior. The person approaching is the cue for the dog to offer a sit! Click then treat!
  • Choice of candy or fruit
  • An opportunity to demonstrate what they have been training as the featured spotlight in class
  • Gift cards from various shops, pet boutiques, and coffee stores
  • A simple “Great job” from us!

When a dog team sees how much more focused the dog is in the session, that observation alone can be a significant reinforcer for the family.

As learning is individualized for each person, we allow them to choose their own reward. As I walk from team to team and observe teams feeding dogs high-value treats, I continue to reinforce those teams periodically.

One owner/dog pair that I worked with learned about the reinforcement hierarchy early on. Owner Heather, training with me for the first time, learned what treats please and motivate her dog, Pumpkin, in a new environment and amid distractions. In the training, we used a high-value treat (small pieces of turkey dog) and a low-value treat (dry dog biscuit). Seeing Pumpkin focused and interested in eating the high-value treat provides reinforcement for Heather—she was successful in creating an interested and focused dog.

Heather and Pumpkin focusing on the "stay" behavior.
(click here to enlarge)

Note that another reinforcer is inherent in the training process. When a dog team sees how much more focused the dog is in the session, that observation alone can be a significant reinforcer for the family.

As I am a TAGteach Level 1 Certified Instructor, we are also implementing “Shaping Simple Skills with TAGteaching” as defined by Dr. Vargas. As trainers, we adjust to the needs of each dog team and are flexible with moment-to-moment progress.

When I win

So what is my reinforcer for finding a positive and professional way to set our dog teams up for success? Seeing them having fun with their pups, building relationships, employing empathy for both the dog and themselves, and creating a partnership with their canine companions based on trust. Notes like the one below are the biggest “clicks” for me:

“I began clicker training with Whoopsie Daisy following our Puppy Start Right Orientation. On the first training day, Whoopsie walked away after 10 clicks when distracted by a new toy. Based on what I learned about high-value vs. low-value rewards at Orientation, I understood that her kibble was low-value and did not override her desire to play with her new toy. On the second training day, I switched her reward to a higher-value treat and maintained her attention throughout the exercise. Whoopsie's ears now perk up and she scans the floor as soon as she hears the clicker!” Lisa P.

Define your own games

The next time you find yourself teaching a session, ask if your dog teams understand the food reinforcement hierarchy. If not, create your own games to help them see just how much fun it is to practice the Training Game. Are there other forms of reinforcement besides food? Absolutely—but that’s a topic for another article!

Many thanks to Furnetic Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine for hosting our group sessions. Thanks, too, to Theresa McKeon from TAGteach International for continuing to educate me about how to be a more effective teacher. 

About the author
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Laura Monaco Torelli, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) and a member of the KPA and ClickerExpo faculties, is the Director of Training for Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago. Since 1991, Laura has worked with and trained beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals, river otters, and penguins (at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago), primates, large cats, birds of prey, reticulated giraffes, Arctic foxes, horses, parrots, macaws, tree kangaroos, and red pandas (at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo), and, of course, dogs (just about everywhere). Laura has spoken at many professional conferences and has appeared on various broadcast media.

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