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Smart Reinforcement: A Journey Toward More Powerful Reinforcers

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Trickier than food, yet valuable

I have used non-food reinforcers from the day I first started training in a professional training environment. As a young guide-dog handler, I learned how to use praise and touch, and experienced first-hand the value of a well-timed squeaky toy. Working in the zoological world, I saw the value in using toys and games as reinforcers for animals that weren’t hungry or weren’t feeling well. As I returned to the dog training world and worked with search-and-rescue dogs and law enforcement units, there was very little food used. These handlers relied almost entirely on tennis balls, tug toys, and games. Non-food reinforcers were everywhere. It seemed natural, logical, and easy!

I have been consulting and helping teach trainers how to train for more than half my career. My focus has been on guiding trainers in the use of positive reinforcement. I enjoy teaching people how to problem-solve and work through challenges in positive ways. What I discovered was that training people to use positive reinforcement wisely was more valuable than just teaching people how to use positive methods. Over and over I observed trainers encountering obstacles using non-food reinforcers. In their efforts to use play or tactile, they found that those reinforcers were not always as effective as food. In some cases trainers could not use food; in other circumstances toys caused the animals to get too excited. I was being called in repeatedly to help in these situations. That’s when I started teaching people about smart reinforcement.

Smart reinforcement

"Reinforecment is at the heart of successful training."

As a lecturer, smart reinforcement became one of my more popular topics. As a consultant, it was the area where people seemed to need the most help. As a supervisor, it became a mechanism for teaching and promoting people up the ladder of responsibility within our programs. Why did this topic play such a pivotal role in almost everything I did? Clearly, it’s because reinforcement is at the heart of successful training. The science proves clearly that reinforcement makes behavior stronger. So why were so many people in need of help?

I believe the answer lies not in the science but in the practice of application. The science gives us good information as to why certain tools and protocols work. But when working with living animals that have minds and motivations of their own, we find ourselves adapting tools and finding solutions that get results (or, in some cases, that don’t). These solutions do not always fit easily into an existing scientific model. We are at a loss to explain why it works or even how we arrived at that particular strategy. I believe this dilemma is what prompts trainers to seek guidance and help.

I have often been in a leadership role within training organizations, responsible for teaching trainers their craft and implementing protocols for doing training jobs. By necessity, this responsibility forced me to create a systematic set of policies to guide trainers in their work. In many cases, these policies developed into training plans and rules for how to teach behavior effectively, efficiently, safely, and with compassion for the learner. The bottom line was far more than training; the focus was on animal welfare. This philosophy resulted in many years of adjusting, tweaking, and improving these protocols—which then led to the development of Karen Pryor Academy’s (KPA) new course, Smart Reinforcement™.

Smart Reinforcement from KPA

While I have taught smart-reinforcement concepts for years, this new course provides a way to gather all the information in one place and make it available for everyone. KPA’s Smart Reinforcement course is an online course, and I am available for virtual coaching to help guide students through the smart-training protocols. The focus of the program is on developing effective reinforcers other than food. The course emphasizes four main skills:

Developing new or novel reinforcers (clapping, “yahoo,” or other learned reinforcers)

Understanding and using natural reinforcers (toys, play, and tactile reinforcers)

Choosing and evaluating reinforcers

Using information about smart reinforcement with clients

Smart Reinforcement also reviews some of the science behind schedules of reinforcement, and tries to clear up the uncertainty that seems to exist about this topic in the practical training community.

"The course shares the techniques and protocols that I have used throughout my career to implement different types of reinforcers successfully."

But more importantly, the course shares the techniques and protocols that I have used throughout my career to implement different types of reinforcers successfully. It takes a systematic approach to teaching novel reinforcers gradually, and makes a case for how reinforcers help improve relationships with animals. The course also examines the motivation behind each animal’s favorite game or toy in order to help the trainer maintain the strength and value of those reinforcers. Smart Reinforcement is a practical course, with exercises for trainers and their dogs. It is designed for the serious trainer who wants to try to develop new and more diverse reinforcers.

Clarity and success

For me, the motivation to train any animal is making that animal healthier and happier. I like to teach trainers how to achieve that same goal. Too often, training is confusing and unclear to the animal. My hope is that this course will give trainers another tool, a tool to make their use of reinforcement more diverse and more successful—and to set the trainers and their animals up for success.

Happy Training,


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