If you’re a positive reinforcement trainer, you should know the answer to this question!
Consequences are important
Thorndike’s Law summed up training with “consequences drive behavior.” This is an important idea if you want to train your dog, or your cat, pet rat, or Alpaca. The rule holds true for all animals.
Consequences in positive dog-training
When you make the commitment to train using positive reinforcement, you have decided to use things that your dog loves as consequences during training, and to forgo deliberately using positive punishers—in this context “positive” means adding a punisher, such as a collar pop or an electric shock, and is distinguished from a “negative” punisher, which is taking away something good). This seems like a basic concept, but its application is more complex than simply providing treats.
For effective positive dog-training, the following is critical.
- First, to the extent possible, manage the environment so that it is less likely that your dog will practice unwanted behaviors, e.g., using a baby gate to keep your dog out of the family room when children are playing on the floor to prevent scratches and nipping, or crating an unattended puppy.
- Next, manage the environment so that your dog is not reinforced for unwanted behaviors, e.g., keeping food off counters while training a “counter surfer”.
- Now, shift your focus from stopping “bad” behaviors to catching your dog being good instead.
- Last, when your dog does something correctly, know how to reinforce that behavior effectively.
Management is always a good place to start. Management has two goals. The first objective is to arrange the environment, as much as we can, to prevent our dogs from rehearsing an unwanted behavior over and over. This is because a frequently rehearsed behavior will only get stronger. The second objective is to eliminate any source of reinforcement for the undesired behavior. This step is important because behavior that is not reinforced will move into extinction, and eventually disappear, whereas behaviors that are reinforced will happen more frequently.
So why not simply stop with management?
With some issues, you can. But when we are working with an existing behavior problem, extinction can be an unnecessarily frustrating experience for your dog, and extinction does not tell your dog what they should do instead—and what they come up with on their own may be equally problematic, or worse!
Catch them being right!
Shifting your focus from finding fault to identifying what behaviors you want to see more of can take a lot of work because many of us learned through correction ourselves—and often suffered because of it. From ticketing speeders to having naughty children stay after school, our culture is permeated with finding fault. But you can, with practice, start noticing your dog (and the people around you) when they do something right, or even something that is simply okay—if you reinforce approximations toward desirable behavior, you will get there faster than you might expect. The more you do this, the more positive behavior-changes you will see around you—which is reinforcing to you too!
So how does reinforcement work?
Like consequences, reinforcement is also a simple concept that is not always straightforward in practice. The first thing to know about reinforcement is that your treat (or toy or praise) is only reinforcement if it changes your dog’s behavior.
Consider, if your dog sits and you give him a Cheerio and he spits it out, you would probably conclude that you did not successfully reinforce that sit. But if your dog sits and you give him a Cheerio and he eats the Cheerio, have you actually reinforced the sit? Maybe. If he immediately sits again, hoping for more Cheerios, it probably did function as reinforcement. If he wanders off after eating the Cheerio, or jumps up, or barks, the Cheerio probably wasn’t reinforcing to your dog at that time.
This is why many trainers encourage students to use “high-value treats” in class and in distracting environments. A bored dog, hanging around the house waiting for something to do, might like Cheerios and find them reinforcing. That same dog, at class or in a park with strange smells, other dogs, and lots going onaround him, may no longer be all that interested in Cheerios—maybe sniffing or meeting other dogs is more reinforcing in this environment at this time. Steak, however, might do the trick—or it might not. The individual animal (or person) being reinforced always decides what constitutes reinforcement.
What should you use?
In most contexts a high-quality training treat, if your dog likes it, will be the easiest way to reinforce your dog. In more challenging environments, you might try cut-up block cheese, small bits of hot dog (microwaved on paper towels to make them less slimy), boiled chicken breasts cut into small pieces, or steak trimmings.
But don’t stop at food. Tug games, fetch (ball or Frisbee), and personal play are all excellent reinforcers once your dog has learned to love these games. Unlike food, which will loose value as your dog gets full, these forms of reinforcement will retain their value during most training sessions—although they too could lose potency during a tiring, physically draining session or on a hot day.
The environment is also a great source of natural reinforcement. If your dog loves going outside, ask for a behavior and, when your dog performs it correctly, let them out to play. Sniffing bushes can reinforce loose-leash walking. A belly rub can reinforce lying down quietly while people talk or watch T.V.
Draw up three lists. The first one will rank your training environments from easy to the most challenging. Think about what sort of reward would likely function as reinforcement in each context—e.g., Cheerios for performing a sit in the kitchen, cheese for sitting in class, and a fun game of tug for sitting with you on the agility course when another dog is running in the ring beside you.
Next, list everything your dog loves. To the extent you can, order this list from highest-value rewards to the lowest (or the reverse). Think about how you could use each of these items in your training—compare this list with the first one you drew up.
Next, draw up an ordered list of distractions. Consider whether any of these “distractions” could be converted into reinforcers, at least if you set up the training session well. Distractions are by definition super interesting and often are desirable to your dog; therefore, many distractions are likely to function as reinforcement if accessed by your dog as a consequence of engaging in training with you.
Last, have fun reinforcing your dog’s behavior effectively! Your dog will love you for it.