Intermittent Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement (a common slang term for operant conditioning) is the basis of clicker training. Unfortunately, not all clicker trainers understand the use of reinforcers, namely, when to give them to the dog and when NOT to give them.

Reinforcement Examples
First of all, the trainer needs to evaluate the dog to find out what most motivates him. While dog treats are the most commonly used reinforcer, not all dogs respond the same way to treats. Often dogs won’t respond as well to commercial dog treats as actual meat, so be sure to try various types of food: roast beef, cooked hamburger, hot dogs, salmon, etc.

Of course, the dog might not be as interested in food as she is in playing – fetch or tug-of-war, for example. Anything the dog will work hard for is a reinforcer, and can be used in training to modify behavior. There are many motivators in a dog's life, and all dogs are different, so it's best to evaluate each dog for a list of reinforcers.

Once you’ve conditioned the dog to the meaning of the clicker (by pairing the "click" with a "treat"), you can begin modifying his behavior. The whole premise of clicker training is to create a dog who offers behaviors to the trainer, rather than being forced into them – the dog is the one who is “empowered” to make decisions and wants to work with his human.

Intermittent Reinforcement: Reinforcing Only the Best Behaviors
In order to train correctly and have an obedient dog, a trainer must utilize reinforcement correctly. When the dog is first learning a behavior – “sit,” for example – every instance of the correct behavior (the dog sits down completely) is “treated,” no matter how slowly or sloppily she does it. However, after the behavior is consistently occurring, the trainer needs to be sure only to reinforce the top 80% of the behavior. I.e., those times the dog best completes the behavior, and quickly.

It's also important to note that dog trainers should only work on one behavior at a time. If you're working with your dog on "sit," then work only on that cue for a session. Take a break before moving onto any other cues. This speeds the learning process for the dog.

What Does Constant Reinforcement Actually Teach?
By reinforcing your dog for only her best performances ensures the dog learns HOW you want the behavior; not just that you want any form of it. Dogs which are constantly treated for a behavior actually don’t learn to perform the behavior well. In fact, these dogs for the most part don’t even offer the behavior fully or consistently. For example, with a “sit,” the dog might only crouch down so her haunches are near the ground; not on them. With a “down” cue the dog’s elbows might not even touch the ground. Even if the dog downs correctly, she might take her time doing it.

Why does the dog not perform the cue consistently or to the full completion? Because the dog gets paid every single time the behavior occurs, regardless of the precision or timing. (In real-life terms, think of someone who rides the bus to work. Whether they get there early, on-time, late, the bus waits for them and takes them where they need to go. There's no motivation for getting to the bus-stop on time because the person knows the bus will still be there. If, however, the bus kept its schedule this person would begin arriving on time to get a ride.)

By reinforcing only the dog’s best behaviors, you’re telling the dog, “if you don’t work hard enough, you don’t get paid.” Because you’ve done your research and know which reinforcers your dog finds most appealing, the dog WILL work harder if he doesn’t get paid for something. After the dog is consistently giving you his best behavior, then you begin decreasing the reinforcement – or intermittently reinforcing – for the behavior. There shouldn’t be a schedule to the reinforcement, that is, the dog shouldn’t know that every 3rd or 5th occurrence of the behavior earns him a “treat.”

Because the dog never knows when he's going to be reinforced, he'll consistently offer the correct behavior. This is where many clicker trainers fail to understand the true significance of operant conditioning. They don't understand how to get the behavior happening consistently, then move from consistent reinforcement to intermittent by only rewarding the dog's best behaviors, and they also don't understand the true meaning of reinforcers.

There are many trainers who disregard clicker training because of this very misunderstanding of the true nature of the training methods.


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