How many times have you heard the “reward the dog” in different training situations? I probably do not count how many times these two words came to my ear.
Let’s start with the word reward. It applies a little bit different approach.
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Reward your dog. According to the dictionary definition:
Reward – “a thing is given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement.” The correct term we should use is reinforcement. Is it essential to pay attention to the words we use? Of course, because the way we name certain things defines how we perceive them and what we really know about them.
When we read reinforcement, it encourages us to learn about operant conditioning. It makes us see and think in a particular, scientific way and pushes us to understand how and what we are using while working with dogs.
Let’s start with reinforcement. Why it’s the correct word to use?
Because working with dogs and teaching them new behaviors, for the most part, we use rules of operant learning. It is based on assumptions that we (dogs, humans, cats, rats, horses) learn through consequences that occur in the environment.
I have repeatedly written about it on the course Let Him Want, or above all the Handler’s Toolbox that some of you already finished. The positive reinforcement will be the theme of this course. We will use the abbreviation R+ (positive reinforcement).
What is R + during dog training?
A stimulus that occurs after the behavior, which added to the environment, makes the behavior more likely to be repeated in the future. Positive reinforcement is a foundation on which we base the entire system of working with our dogs. Being a thoughtful trainer, we want to use positive reinforcement to its maximum, and to be aware of every aspect of its application. For practice, we will remind ourselves, some basics about reinforcement: Reinforcers can be primary or secondary!
Primary (unconditional) are stimuli that cause the effect of reinforcement without the need to learn, due to genetic conditions of a given species (most often it is: food, water, return to the temperature more appropriate for the body, air)
Secondary (conditioned) are stimuli that have no innate properties of the reinforcer. However, through the process of pairing with the original reinforcers, they acquire their properties. (it can also be pairing with another strong secondary reinforcer). We just have to learn these contingencies first (e.g., sounds, social contact, praise)
It is not relevant whether a given consequence gives us pleasure, pain, or is widely recognized as something “nice” or “unpleasant.” An example may be the situation when the handler yells at the dog every time the dog is barking. Barking behavior with each repetition occurs more frequently. This means that yelling acts as positive reinforcement. It does not matter that we generally perceive the yell as punishment.
Unluckily, the terms reinforcement and punishment (punishment in particular) have an ordinary meaning, deviating entirely from their scientific definitions, used in the behavioral analysis on which our entire theory of work with animals really relays on.
Behavior learning processes are scientifically researched phenomena, whether we like it or not, they take place when we work with a dog. Getting to know them better will help us not only to understand how our pups learn but also to explain why something we do works and why it doesn’t.
Reinforcement attributes – what conditions must be fulfilled by a stimulus to be called reinforcement:
- Change in the environment MUST take place AFTER behavior.
- Change in the environment MUST take place DIRECTLY after the behavior.
- Change in the environment MUST be contingent on behavior.
- The most important! A change in the environment MUST fulfill the FUNCTION. That is to increase the future frequency of a behavior. When this effect is not there, we can’t talk about reinforcement. Therefore, whether or not something works as reinforcement can be assessed only in the next repetition of a behavior.
- Automaticity. The dog does not have to be informed that his behavior will now be reinforced. If reinforcement occurs after the behavior, this behavior will be repeated in the future.
- We strengthen behavior, not the organism. We do not strengthen the dog but the behavior of the dog.
We cannot talk about reinforcements without reference to a given behavior. Because will food always be a reinforcer? For any behavior? No, when our dog has just finished his dinner, it’s hard for us to use food to strengthen the behavior.
Does it matter?
Once we’ve determined that we’re reinforcing behavior, and we’re not rewarding the dog, now it’s time to explore more about HOW to do it? And if it matters. Even if we agreed that we would use R + in our work to a large extent, does it matter how we use it? Does the method of delivery, type, the whole process matter? Does it mean anything? Or is it just muddying the waters?
Oh, yes, it does matter! It matters gigantically! Incorrectly carried out reinforcement process can become something completely opposite, aversive to the animal, turning positive reinforcement into negative or into punishment. Additionally, the entire process of classical conditioning can thwart our plans and make our pupil perceive food, toy as a stimulus associated with aversive sensations. This is, of course, the worst-case scenario but very popular.
Equally popular are situations when the improper use of reinforcement techniques leads to frustration, communication clashes, excessive use of extinction, strengthening of undesirable behaviors, or obtaining “unclean” cycles of learning.
Unfortunately, very often, at the beginning of our dog training journey, the techniques we use, mechanics, our skills are often pushed into the background, and the only thing we learn is “rewarding the dog.” We just have to deliver a treat or toy. Diverse techniques and a conscious approach to the reinforcement process opens up a new world for us—the success of the entire learning processes based on our success in this matter. We cannot expect our students to fill in the gaps. We need to learn not only correct timing with the use of a clicker but a whole range of techniques for handling reinforcers, the processes of delivery. R + is a very extensive topic, which is why we have created many courses at tromplo.com
To dispel myths and transfer our skills to another level. I hope that after the course, you will be looking at the learning process also through the prism of how it is influenced by the technique you use and that the “reward your dog” will never sound the same for you!