Bootleg Reinforcement

Auf Deutsch!

-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.

A sand colored dog with a black tail and muzzle is in a play bow position, sniffing a person's boots.
Clara excitedly sniffing my boot. Really!

Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?

Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–

The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.

Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump.  Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.

When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:

  • Food on the counter.
  • Scraps in the trashcan.
  • Food the dog can grab if she runs away from you on the agility field and back to your setup area.
  • All manner of critters on the agility field.
  • Rat trails along the walls of an indoor agility course (this happened to me and my dog once).
  • Books on the bookshelf available to chew.
  • Buried cat poop that the dog can dig up.
  • Neighbor dog available to fence fight (there are bootleg negative reinforcers, now that I think of it).
  • Whatever happens to be reinforcing about barking (either positively or negatively reinforcing).
  • Whatever the dogs gets access to when she pulls on leash. And that leads to…


The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.

Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans, she is extremely neophilic, that is, [1]An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and … Continue reading  she is fascinated with and drawn to investigate anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.

Clara sniffing
Copping a drive-by sniff

So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)

I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.

The Movies

Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.

I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here).  I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.

I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.

The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?

When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.

If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 1.

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 2.

I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?

Related Posts

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Addendum: History of the Term “Bootleg”

Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:

bootleg (n.) “leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.

Bootleg items
Bootleg items courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (click photo for license)

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                     


1 An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.

53 thoughts on “Bootleg Reinforcement

  1. I love this concept and want to implement it in different scenarios. We as trainers often think that food always does the trick when we know there are times that some other “want” trumps it. What would you then recommend for the puller/sniffer besides increasing the value of the food reinforcer? I’m picturing letting them sniff first and then get into walking position or vice versa. Either way my spine already feels like an accordion!! I truly appreciate your insights, Eileen!!

    1. That’s a good question for a more skilled trainer than I! I did try it early on with one of my dogs, and learned very quickly that if you are going to let them go sniff, you need to be able to get their attention back again afterwards. It’s not the same as a food treat that you can hand them as you both are walking along. So there’s a prerequisite skill (at least one) for the behavior. I did do it fairly successfully with Zani. We practiced being released to sniff, then coming back, in lots of boring environments. Here’s a video where we had worked up to the front yard. So it works fairly well with her, but what I would really like is a communication system where the dog could “ask” to go sniff. I know some people do this, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

  2. This is fascinating and makes sense of something I had never given much thought to. When I come home with shopping, George loves to sniff the bags. I tell him I’ve been hunting without him :-). He settles down much faster than he does if I’ve been out somewhere else.

    By coincidence, I came across this blog yesterday.

    I’m wondering how to apply it to my training.

    1. A few years back when I was experimenting with using odor as a reinforcer, I bought stuff like synthetic rabbit pee, etc. online. The dogs definitely thought it was interesting. But I learned quickly that I didn’t have to go to those lengths. Bags of groceries, a package that’s been on the front porch, even papers from work–I now show them anything and everything that I bring in, as long as it’s safe. Sometimes I might ask for a sit, sometimes they get it for “free,” as long as there is no jumping involved.

      That is a cool article and video. I like it too.

  3. Yet again proof that we share the same brain. I’m currently using this principle to help Turbo with his enthusiastic jumping and mouthing greetings when he first sees me. Just like Clara, saying hello trumps food at that particular time. So a sit opens the door to access me and then I go down to him and touch him calmly as he wiggles so he doesn’t need to jump. He would rather jump than sit for food and just like you wrote, turning away and ignoring him simply increased his vigour to make contact. He determines how long we greet but he’s calming quicker eacb time. You’ve inspired me to make a video to compliment your great pair

    1. Ha! I referred to you as my “sistah from another mistah” the other day and really startled someone!

      Oh, I hope you make a video. Can you still get some “before” footage without compromising your progress? Thanks for the comment!

  4. We have a puller/sniffer, but a fearful one, so he can easily get himself into trouble. We’re still working on not pulling towards “fixed” smells, which often get bootleg reinforcement just because he’s so big (more than 2/3 of my weight) and strong. But I think we’ve made progress on the bootleg reward of other beings’ odors. I ask him to sit when another dog or person walks by, and I then let him sniff the “wake” of odor they leave behind. This gives him access to the rewarding odor without getting into the uncomfortable social intimacy that will trigger humping the other dog or an aggressive reaction against an unknown person. To my surprise, he sometimes sits down spontaneously in one of these situations (especially with a dog as he’s less uncomfortable with other dogs than with people) — he actually did this on this morning’s walk, despite being in a difficult spot on a narrow sidewalk with busy traffic whizzing by on our side of the sidewalk.

    I’m wondering if this principle (and the principle of curiosity in the video linked by nicknockynoo) provide some of the scientific basis behind BAT. I know that some people criticize BAT as R-, but I’ve never really understood that position. My dog is both interested in and scared by unknown things; what he lacks are the social and decision-making skills to manage that ambivalence and to keep himself out of trouble. With BAT, he gets regarded both for checking out the new stimulus and for walking away from it. I saw this clearly a couple of days ago was I was working with him with regard to his reactivity towards large animals. As we walked towards some donkeys tethered in a local park, I did pure DS/CC until we reached the distance where he seemed to be approaching threshold. I then took several steps backward and let him approach the donkey threshold and study them. When he disengaged, I clicked him for coming back and then rewarded him once he had come all the way back. This combination of letting him satisfy his curiosity and rewarding him for the desired behavior seemed very powerful. He quickly relaxed totally and would come back with his face shining. We still keep a respective distance (baby steps!), but he’s much more at ease with their presence now, except when they bray!

    1. Hi Kristen, and thanks for your comments. First a caution, lest my original post be misunderstood. (I’m putting this into a reply to your comment but it includes responses to some other discussions of my post that have been going on.) I was writing about an activity that I knew to be reinforcing and fun for my dog; the activity was not part of any program for working with triggers.

      Out in the world, especially with a dog who is fearful, reactive, or feral, we can’t assume that odor = good. Nor can we assume that the bootleg activity of sniffing will end up being enriching or positively reinforcing. It might, or it might seriously backfire.

      A dog who is interested in approaching something may not have the goal we want. I have a friend whose dog started following people, air sniffing, with an interested look, when she had been doing DS/CC to humans with him for a while. She was pleased until it became apparent that his goal was to get close enough to bite their sleeve or pant leg.

      The science behind BAT starts with the effects and results of the different learning processes that it employs. Desensitization, habituation, negative and positive reinforcement (and possible negative punishment for frustrated greeters) all have characteristics that are important to learn about. Understanding the point of the arguments about negative reinforcement allows one to make a more informed choice.

      For me, when dealing with serious triggers, the importance of keeping the dog feeling safe overrides the possible benefits of letting the dog express curiosity. There is time for that when the emergency of her fear is over. She can enjoy the results of her curiosity much more when she is not concerned about scary things in the environment.

      Please note that I am talking about serious triggers. My dogs are exposed to plenty of new stuff, some of which is slightly worrisome, with not much intervention from me. Horses and donkeys are a good example. They’ve taken a few good looks and sniffs (from the other side of a fence), gotten a treat if appropriate, and gone about their business. That is emphatically not what I would do with a dog who had indicated aggression or fear towards those animals.

      I’m glad your dog’s experience with the donkeys worked out well. I just don’t want it to be a takeaway method for other readers for addressing serious triggers.

      1. Hi Eileen — I agree with you 100% and didn’t mean to create confusion. We’ve had our dog for almost three years and been doing positive training and rehabilitation with him for more than two, so I’ve had plenty of time to learn exactly where his comfort zone is and isn’t. He’s been improving by leaps and bounds in recent weeks and seems to have reached a totally new level of confidence, which is allowing us to push the boundaries a bit more. That being said, we were still doing our BAT a good 40 yards/metres from the donkeys, just to be on the safe side! But he can still get some good scents from that distance and is a passionate sniffer. We’re in contact with a positive trainer who does nose games and thinks we can find ways to involve him in nose games despite his challenges, so we’re looking forward to that.

        I was mostly just thinking out loud. I am constantly trying to connect all the dots among the many interesting pieces I read and to figure out how to apply it best to our dog and to better understand these complex creatures we are caring for!

    2. Negative reinforcement occurs when the removal of an aversive causes behavior to increase. Most commonly, when a dog encounters a naturally occurring aversive (let’s say he fears children, and a child suddenly appears) and avoids it, he feels relief. So, the next time he encounters a child, he avoids it again and the feeling of relief reinforces the behavior of avoiding the child. Good – as long as the dog doesn’t get trigger stacked. What happens, for example, if the dog is accosted by five little kids all at once who rush toward him and think they want to pat him? He never really lost his fear of kids, he’s just been avoiding them. You might get lucky and he just shuts down But, you might get unlucky and he bites one of the kids. IMO, escape/avoidance (R-) training is more of a risk than desensitization and counter-conditioning, which is one reason I prefer CARE to BAT.

      1. I take your point, but you assume that you can only use one technique for training. We do DS/CC, but you can only desensitize to a finite number of triggers and the world is full of an infinite number of stimuli. The counterpoint to your argument is: what happens when the dog is confronted with something scary that hasn’t been desensitized and the dog hasn’t learned that moving away is an option? This is why I think both are important. We should absolutely be desensitizing our dogs to scary things, but it’s also important that they learn there are other options than charging the scary things that haven’t been desensitized.

        1. There are other training methods besides escape to teach the dog options in responding to new stimuli that haven’t been desensitized. Having a palette of R+ behaviors to call on in those situations is extremely helpful, and the side effects, that new stimuli can become a signal that positive reinforcement is available, are beneficial. There is a path to a generalized positive conditioned emotional response to unfamiliar stimuli. (Actually my recent posts about Summer generalizing her triggers are an example of that. My dog Clara has an even stronger positive response to sudden environmental changes.)

          And with that, I’m going to stop this particular line of discussion. Thank you Kristen and Anne for being good natured and keeping to the issues. Please don’t stop commenting in general. We don’t have to agree on everything. I would just rather not moderate further discussion on this topic right here and right now, especially since it wasn’t the focus of the post.

  5. Thank you for this post!!
    I’ve been presenting this idea to my clients for at least 6 years, based upon the idea that a greeting behavior is a need which must be attended to, and the concept of turning one’s back on the dog and other strategies that ignore the dog, only amplified the dog’s need to connect. Of course when presenting this to clients they’d look at me bug-eyed. I have learned that if as a private trainer, if I am not making recommendations that “fit” with the clients preconceived notions, I will not make much progress.
    This strategy of just spending a little time, upon homecoming, (also recommended to parents of children in the child development discipline, too) even if not going to train another behavior helps the dog settle down and be more confident because a basic need is being met.
    I’ve taken Sharon’s course, too. I’m grateful you posted this; it brought tears to my eyes, too.
    More and more, when we see FA address an animal’s needs and wants, we get more than just “better” behavior.
    Again, my heartfelt thanks.
    Bill Stavers

    1. Thank you, Bill!

      I don’t train professionally but I am exposed to some of the skills that go with it, including that if the plan doesn’t “work” for the human, it ain’t gonna work. Good for you for being an advocate for the dogs’ wants and needs. I bet you do get some strange looks at first.

      Greetings and our dealings with them can be all over the map, can’t they! I want to use your comment to mention that I have never done the “ignore” thing with Clara. But what I did do was a rather businesslike hello, then straight to the mats, then outside.

      She and I are both really enjoying our nice greetings now. Believe it or not, my two other dogs are the least into greetings of any dogs I’ve ever had. So overarousal was never a problem with them.

      Thanks for the great points.

  6. I had a 24 hour interruption between watching Part 1 and Part 2, and it gave me a lot of time to consider how easily bootleg reinforcers can be overlooked as part of a solution. When I finally got to watch the solution in action, it was the epitome of grace! Thanks for observing and arranging things keenly enough to suit your dog so well, and for sharing it with us.

  7. Great article on a familiar issue!

    We never had a proper name for these “bootleg” reinforcers but it’s interesting that they all seem to be rewards out of the handler’s/trainer’s control. We always called them “competing” reinforcers in that they are attractive alternatives to what we are offering.

    Very well explained!

    Nice job, Eileen. ☺

    1. Around my house they often tend not only to be competing but to be “winning” reinforcers! Thanks, Eric!

    1. Thank you so much! I was thinking about your hints about functional assessment (Behavior Myopia) when I made the movie.

  8. Love this. Nothing would have worked to get Clover to even begin to entertain the concept of coming when called instead of chasing squirrels other than putting squirrel-chasing on cue and making it even more fun by joining in the “hunt” with her. (Well… That, a new recall word, and long line!)

  9. Hi Eileen, I have been training dogs for a very long time and I can say that if you want a dog to do any behavior the dog must have a desire to do so. While there is very little you can do about boot-leg reinforcement, outside of management, I always tell my clients to find out what their dog desires and give it to them in heaps. If your dog loves to chase squirrels then by all means join in on the hunt and in those times when you don’t want your dog to engage the object of their attraction, then you better have a back up plan. I always bring my tug toys and if my dog begins to react to, let’s say another dog then before he gets a chance to pull me I bring out the tug and engage his prey drive. By doing this I become the center of my dogs world and he looks to me to resolve his feelings about any given situation. Thanks

    1. I find this last comment to be such a good reminder about giving dogs what they want which goes back to the original idea mentioned by Dr. Friedman. I love the notion of redirecting the reactive behavior with tug to fulfill the predatory response often taking place.

  10. We have a big issue with that!
    We like to take Riley hiking because its the best way for him to run around and get some much needed exercise (since we live in the city) and that usually means he gets to go off leash. He used to have VERY good recall, but now as soon as he sees another dog or person, he runs up to them and won’t even listen to us until he got his reinforcement (getting to say hi, chaos, lots of pets, and maybe playing with a dog). Even on leash, if he sees a dog or person he will try desperately to get to them, and just stare and will ignore us until we either drag him away or the person/dog goes out of sight.
    We used to be able to control this behaviour with food, but even hotdogs, boiled chicken, freeze dried meat treats and liver treats – all his high reward treats – can’t get him to pay attention to us for more than a second to get the reward.
    We no longer let him off leash around the property anymore (we used to be able to let him out to use the bathroom and run around in the side yard) but since it is not fenced, he started to run after dogs and people, which was getting super dangerous.
    I’m unsure how to control his running to greet without having to constantly restrain him to a leash.

    1. This is a hard problem and it sounds like you have correctly identified that he is getting reinforced for running away by all the things you list. I’m hoping some more experienced trainers will chime in here. But one thing that will help virtually every dog is recalls in easier situations. Practice so much, and for such high value reinforces, that it becomes almost a reflex for him. That’s a general and safe recommendation but not a complete fix; hopefully some others can reply to your specific situation.

      One question: Do you have the feeling your dog know when you have good stuff, and figures he can do the minimum to get it? If so, there are some training techniques that might help.

  11. curious to know how you would apply this technique to counter surfing? Thanks

    1. Jennie, counter surfing is one of those behaviors that would be classified by most people as “never acceptable.” But we can think about what the dog gets out of it and try to emulate that in some enrichment activities. What happens when a dog successfully countersurfs is that they get something that they may never get otherwise, a special treat, and they get it through their own foraging actions. Things like food toys, forage boxes, and letting the dog sniff out their supper can let dogs exercise their natural affinity for hunting and scavenging.

      But you could do all that and it would probably not stop the dog from counter surfing. To directly address the problem, one needs to be extremely strict during a long training period and never leave anything on a counter that would reinforce surfing (and for some dogs that is not limited to food items), and undergo a training protocol. This video by Emily Larlham shows that approach. Tutorial: Solving Counter Surfing.

      Including enriching, permissible foraging activities in the dog’s life could be part of a program, just not the whole thing.

  12. I have recently made a snuffle mat for our dogs. It only took me 3 evenings to make, whilst watching TV. George has 1/2 his kibble in it whilst Zoe has 1/2 of hers in a Green Feeder, then I swap them over. Apparently, they are machine washable in a pillow case but haven’t tried that yet.
    I gave up scattering kibble on the lawn as any bits they missed would be covered in huge slugs the next morning – yuck.

    1. (())Snuffle mats are great! I’ll add a link here a bit later. Thanks for bringing that up!

  13. I have been trying to train a Basset to walk nicely on leash and I have been suffering heavily from (in contrast, Frankie the Basset has been greatly enjoying) bootleg reinforcement in the form of sniffing the ground. Any ground is almost always more interesting to him than the most amazing treats I can think of (liverwurst and bacon). He is not a directional sniffer (i.e. he pulls, but not toward anything in particular and will quickly switch pulling directions), so I can’t make approaching the enticing object a reinforcer for walking nicely. Any ideas?

    1. That’s a challenge! Hoping some others can respond, but I will be back with my thinking cap on.

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