Thursday, January 8, 2009

Positive Reinforcement

Choosing a Positive Reinforcer
When using operant conditioning or clicker training with dogs, the trainer first needs to evaluate the dog to find out what he wants most. Anything a dog will work to achieve can be considered a reinforcer. Two things to keep in mind: reinforcers are different for each dog; what WE as trainers think of as 'rewards' for the dog might not be reinforcers*. What motivates one dog might not be important to another. Some dogs are extremely motivated by food, while others prefer play and toys; some dogs merely want attention from their trainer. There are many different types of reinforcement; you must choose the one which is best for your dog.

Main Types of Reinforcement for Dogs
Food: When you’re working with a food-motivated dog, it’s best to ensure you’re using food which the dog cannot resist. While you can certainly train the dog at feeding time – thus using the dog’s actual meal for reinforcement – this won’t have as strong an effect at any other time.

Use the smallest piece of food your dog will work towards; be sure to have soft, quickly-chewable pieces versus big, crunchy treats. The quicker the dog can consume the treat, the quicker he’ll turn his attention back to you instead of taking his time hunting around for the crumbs of the one you just gave him.

If your dog doesn’t seem interested in commercial dog treats, you can try cooked meat, such as hamburger, roast beef, etc. Don’t worry about the dog beginning to beg for “human” food, since the only time this food is used is when training. A dog learns to beg for food only when this behavior is reinforced!

Within the food category, you'll find your dog will have favorites that he'll work for no matter what - whether he's just eaten or he's chewing on a favorite toy, etc - these are your "high-reward" reinforcers, and should be utilized when you're training for very important cues. An example would be the recall, or "come!" cue. Many dog trainers believe this to be one of the most important cues to teach a dog; if it is for you, then you should reward the behavior with an extremely high "paycheck"!

Play/Toys: Many highly energetic, prey-drive dogs actually prefer this method of reinforcement over treats. This can be anything from the dog’s favorite toy to playing tug-of-war, fetch, or any other game the dog loves to play. The trick here is to keep the play sessions very short – no more than 30 seconds – so you leave the dog wanting more. Also, it keeps both of you on task. Again, keep in mind that certain games or toys will motivate your dog more than others.

Attention/Touch: Some dogs crave attention over anything else and a trainer can certainly use this as reinforcement. Petting, scratching, or any other form of attention the dog loves can be used as reinforcers. Again, the key is to keep these sessions short when using them for training. Also, it's good to know in which places your dog really likes to be scratched or petted, versus the places where it's just simple enjoyment. For example, a dog might like getting her belly rubbed, but she absolutely loves having her ears scratched. Keep these things in mind when you're reinforcing for behaviors...the bigger the "duty," the bigger the reinforcement should be.

Similar to petting or scratching, some dogs will work for merely a “Good dog!” or other form of verbal praise. When clicker training or using any other form of positive reinforcement training, it’s important to understand eventually the trainer needs to move away from “treating” the dog every time – this is called intermittent reinforcement – and instead move towards more verbal praise with intermittent reinforcers (such as praise, play, food, etc.).

Territory: Last, but certainly not least, is the use of space as a reinforcer for your dog. Let's look at an example to explain this: think of the puppy who constantly pulls on the leash to get somewhere else. A good dog trainer can actually use this behavior to his/her advantage in order to form new behaviors. Standing quietly and calmly, the trainer waits until the split second in which the pup lets some slack creep into the leash - CLICK! - and reinforce this non-pulling behavior. After a few repetitions of receiving payment for not pulling, the puppy will figure out "if I don't pull, I get rewarded!" While you'd want to start in small enough increments - and with the least amount of distraction - in order to give your puppy a chance to succeed, using space and territory within operant conditioning will work if the trainer is consistent and has good timing.

Reinforcers Are NOT Created Equal
Another important note to make is that not all reinforcers hold the same motivational factor all the time for a dog. For example, if a dog is highly food motivated but has just eaten, she probably won’t work as hard to obtain food – even if it’s her favorite treat you’re using. Also, motivation to work for reinforcement can be affected by the presence of another reinforcer. A dog who will work for both food and play will default to one or the other when both are present. A dog with high prey-drive, for example, will often ignore food in preference of their favorite game.

No matter which reinforcers work best for your dog, keep in mind the proper way to train – to get the best, longest-lasting results – is not to treat for every single behavior all the time. Even when using intermittent reinforcement, you don’t want your dog to know there’s any type of schedule to the reinforcement.

Last, a trainer should always be thinking outside the dog training box. The aforementioned “popular” methods of positive reinforcement are effective, but don’t forget the Premack Principle – situations and the environment can be used as reinforcers, too!

*Think of a 'reinforcer' as something the DOG wishes to obtain/is motivated to work for, while a 'reward' is what the TRAINER thinks the dog wants. Seems confusing, doesn't it? If a trainer has done her homework, she knows the reinforcers her dog most enjoys, and when to use them, while a trainer who hasn't evaluated the dog's motivational factors will think "my dog will work for these" when in fact, the dog might not want to!

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