I spent a lot of time this morning thinking about non-food rewards. All dog trainers know our mantra: “what gets rewarded gets repeated” and its corollary: “the dog decides what’s a reward and what isn’t.” Let me give an example. My dog adores chicken livers but he spits out apple chunks. The chicken livers are a reward; the apple chunks are not. For me, apples are a reward–but not for Rush. He gets to decide, if he’s the one getting rewarded. Dog trainers also spend time developing rewards that aren’t food. Rush loves to play tug with me; Dancer likes to have her hips massaged while she hides her head between my thighs. But Dancer doesn’t like tug that much–although she does like to be chased while she runs around with the tug toy in her mouth. The dog decides what’s rewarding.
I am trying these days to develop reward systems for myself, because humans (like dogs) also experience the same training effect: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Chocolate, for many of us, is a reward because chocolate releases a whole sequence of chemical responses. Same with caffeine. Sugar–well, sugar has massive effects on the brain. But… I’m trying to lose weight, run faster and more often, and develop other healthy habits. How do I reward myself in such a way that I want to repeat healthy behaviors? Non-food rewards are essential. So I’ve been trying out various behavioral rewards. I have a lemon creme body wash I use only when I run; I love it, but it’s pricey. I get a pedicure in the last few days before a race, as a reward for all the training (and because short toenails are way more comfortable during races). I bought a nice bathing suit to swim my laps in. I buy socks with cute designs to wear running. For a while, I tried paying myself a dollar for every mile run, but that was not (it turned out) an effective reward. It was just too abstract.