Reinforcers are an event that increases the likelihood that a specific response or behaviour will occur.
Dogs are making choices all the time, so we need to train our dogs to make the right choices. This is where reinforcement comes in. If you add the right reinforcer at the right time, it will encourage more of the behaviour you want. The reinforcer promotes the value of the choice the dog has made.
Good Choices + The Right Reinforcement = More Good Choices.
For example, you’re out walking and your chase loving dog sees a rabbit. They choose to start pulling on the lead. If they manage to go quicker or even pull the lead out of your hand, their choice to pull gets reinforced by the ability to run after the rabbit. However if you have reinforced looking at you or for walking calmly when they see a rabbit, then they are less likely to pull. This is because they have been reinforced for different behaviour associated with the rabbit, not for pulling.
Importantly, if you don’t reinforce desired behaviour it is unlikely to increase. In the case of unwanted behaviour the dog is often reinforcing themselves. Without you reinforcing the required behaviour instead, the dog will continue to choose to do things you might not want.
What Are Reinforcers?
Reinforcers are behaviours rather than objects. The following behaviours are all reinforcers-
Each individual dog chooses what is reinforcing to them. For example, swimming would not be reinforcing to our collie Milo but chasing most certainly would.
Levels Of Reinforcement
Reinforcers do not neccesarily work in every situation. For Milo, eating a small piece of his regular food is enough to reinforce him lying down at home. However faced with that rabbit it is more reinforcing for him to chase it, rather than to stay with me and eat some food.
You therefore need to work out what your dog finds most reinforcing and use those behaviours to strengthen the behaviour you would like in different situations. Thinking about Milo again, it would be pointless me offering him a piece of food in a potential rabbit chase situation. However if I offered him a game of chase with me when he sees that rabbit, I am more likely to be able to get the opportunity to stop him running off. The chase with me would be running after a tug toy or me throwing a Puller dog toy.
You can also change the delivery of the chosen reinforcer to change the level of desirability of that reinforcer. This gives you more versatility in different situations and more options to be able to gain the desired behaviour. If I just handed the Puller dog toy to Milo after he sees the rabbit, that would not be as reinforcing to him as me rolling or throwing it. For some dogs, calmly placing some food on the ground would be more reinforcing than you animating it. Alternatively, for Milo, he is reinforced more by me throwing a piece of food for him to run after than me just handing it to him. The Kong Hide N Treat is a great training tool for varying reinforcement delivery.
So once you have identified things that your dog loves to do, you can play around with the delivery of those things to help you with your training.
Examples Of Reinforcer Choices
- Ask your dog to sit and then reinforce the completed behaviour by releasing the dog to go and swim
- Cue your dog to wait, then reinforce them for waiting by opening the door and releasing them to go outside
- Your dog notices a distraction in the distance, reinforce a hesitation to run by scatter feeding
- After your dog has returned to your recall cue, excitedly play with their favourite toy
- Ask your dog to stay beside you, then reinforce a positive response by releasing them to go and sniff
Examples of Reinforcer Choice For Milo
The tractor engine starting used to trigger Milo to run after the tractor, before it even moved. Now the engine starting is a trigger for Milo to run to me! How did I achieve this? Through me making the right reinforcement choices to reward Milo for the behaviour I wanted to see more.
What didn’t work-
- Feeding a piece of regular food directly to him
- Scatter feeding
- Throwing a chew stick
- Walking in a different direction
These didn’t’t work because they weren’t reinforcing enough to Milo.
What did work-
- Playing with the Pullers regularly, building his desire for them away from a chase situation. Then starting with the tractor at a distance, rewarding him for not running towards it by throwing a Puller.
- Throwing one piece of food towards the tractor, then several pieces of higher value food away from the tractor.
- Throwing the Kong Hide N Treat in the opposite direction to the tractor when the engine started.
- Gradually moving closer to the tractor and consistently reinforcing Milo’s good choices.
So now when the engine starts, he sees it as fun time with me and not fun time with a tractor wheel!
Thank You For Reading
Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE
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