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Guide Dog Class Lecture: Why Does Your Guide Dog Work?

A guide dog works because they are 

  1. inherently willing to please their handler, 
  2. they want to earn a food reward, and 
  3. they are intrinsically motivated by the work to get out into the world and guide! All dogs are individuals, and what motivates them may be one or a combination of the aforementioned.


    Clear communication helps with motivation. When a dog knows what is asked of them, they are more motivated to perform the requested behaviour. Verbal cues, tone of voice, hand gestures, footwork, hand grip, leash handling, and body positions are all key components to successfully communicate with your guide dog. If your dog does not respond to you, check to be sure you’ve clearly communicated your intentions.


    Reinforcement is another key element to motivating your dog. Commonly referred to as “rewards”, when used effectively, reinforcement motivates a guide dog to perform the challenging behaviours required of a guide dog. When food reward, a primary reinforcer, is paired (given in conjunction) with a secondary reinforcer, such as praise, it increases the value of the secondary. So, if you happen to forget your food pouch for a route, your dog will still respond and perform guidework behaviours because they are still getting reinforced by your value-added praise if it is ample, genuine, and timely.

    Positive reinforcement is a scientific term that states a behaviour followed by a pleasurable consequence will result in the frequency of that behavior increasing. This means that if something pleasurable is given to the guide dog after performing a task, the dog will want to continue to perform that behaviour in the hopes of earning another reward. “Positive reinforcement” does not mean specifically food reward, but it does describe reward that has true value to the recipient. While praise and affection can be meaningful and rewarding to dogs, the power in using food cannot be understated and deepens the relationship between you and your dog. When applied properly, food rewards can increase a dog’s motivation and the quality of their work.

    Two types of positive reinforcers: primary and secondary

    Primary reinforcers satisfy basic biological needs such as food, shelter, water, sex, and sleep. All living beings inherently seek out primary reinforcers; they do not need to be learned. Primary reinforcers are extremely powerful tools in teaching and maintaining desired behaviour because they are immediately rewarding.

    Secondary reinforcers need to be learned to be appreciated. These reinforcers by themselves initially may not mean anything to the dog, but they can become positive to a dog when associated with a valuable primary reward, such as food. This association can make verbal praise, the clicker, a toy, or a gentle stroke on the dog’s chest more valuable to a guide dog. Our dogs learn the value of these secondary reinforcers and need them as much as food reward during guide work.

    Using “balanced reinforcement” (both primary and secondary) is important to use for the lifetime of your dog’s career to optimize their motivation, which maintains -- and sometimes improves -- their work efficacy and focus.

    When a handler with a new dog pairs food (primary reinforcement) with verbal or physical praise (secondary reinforcement), it builds a “bank account” of pleasurable responses in the dog, quickly motivating the dog to work at a high level for someone they don’t know.

    Using food reward is motivating and can accelerate learning in a dog because it helps to create an eager pupil. It also can increase a dog’s confidence to perform challenging tasks such as guide work. The amount of kibble used on a route may vary depending on the work demands, type of environment or novelty of the route. The best way to determine how much food reward to give your dog is by your dog’s performance and level of focus.

    Moving to a Variable or Diminished Schedule of Reinforcement

    While it may seem counterintuitive, rewarding a dog on a more intermittent, or variable, schedule can enhance a dog’s responses. Since they are not always certain when the reward will come, they continue to try hard to earn that reward. Moving to a variable reward schedule occurs once a dog has demonstrated proficiency with a given route or behaviour. For example, a food reward may be given for every second, third or fourth ideal response for routine behaviours.

    When lowering the number of food rewards during guidework, consider doing it gradually and over time. Be sure to give more praise and affection as you reduce the number of kibbles given on a route. Also, pay attention to your dog’s quality of performance. Is the work less accurate? Is your dog more distracted? These may be signs that the dog requires more value in rewards from the handler to improve work performance. Consider improving the quality of your praise and affection during work while at the same time giving food rewards on a variable schedule. A basic rule to keep in mind about the amount of food reward to give is that it needs to be used enough for the dog to consider it a possibility; the “potential” for a food reward is always present.


    So, even if your dog is intrinsically motivated to do the work and loves being out in the world with you, GDB recommends the use of food reward for the lifetime of a team’s work together. So, do yourself a favor and take advantage of this very powerful tool to get the highest level of work performance and focus possible from your guide dog.

    Audio Streaming

    You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.