Excerpted from Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers.
I have many different guidelines and rules for using reinforcement effectively. But when I teach people about non-food reinforcers, more questions come up than usual.
I included the following tips to help trainers as they consider the possible explanations for the challenges they face. These are not all-inclusive rules. They are simply thoughts to keep in mind when training, points designed to guide you as you make your reinforcement strategies stronger.
- Don’t take any reinforcer for granted. There is no single reinforcer that will ALWAYS be reinforcing. Remember that reinforcers are context-specific and may lose their effectiveness under certain conditions. As an example, kibble may be a great reinforcer for a dog in the confines of his home, but in the park it may not measure up to the reinforcement of the squirrels, other dogs, and new people in that environment. When you take reinforcers for granted, you are likely to be disappointed eventually.
- Understand the motivating factor behind each reinforcer and make sure to maintain its strength. Each reinforcer has some aspect to it that makes it valuable to your animal. For the doggie treat it may be the smell or taste of bacon, for the tennis ball it may be the chance to chew it, and for the tug toy it might be the relationship and the play with you. If you fail to pay attention to the factors that make certain reinforcers motivating, you will see the reinforcement value of that item decrease—or in some case disappear altogether. When you change treats, you may see the dog refuse it immediately, or the enthusiasm diminish. But sometimes it is not so obvious. What if the motivating factor of a tennis ball is the opportunity to chew it, but you throw it for the dog, asking that it be brought back immediately and assuming the reinforcer is chasing the ball? If you take the ball away too quickly, the dog never receives the value of the reinforcer: actually getting to chew the ball. If you are unaware of this subtle but important difference, the value of the tennis ball can decrease gradually over time. Always be aware of the factors that make each reinforcer effective, and work hard to maintain them.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of reinforcers constantly. I ask myself regularly, “Is this reinforcer working?” If I am not able to determine the answer easily, I begin to set up a formal evaluation process to look at factors like “focus.” I have always found that the level of an animal’s focus is directly related to the power of the consequences being used in that training session. While there are many factors that impact whether or not a reinforcer is effective, I have discovered that by observing the animal’s level and intensity of focus I can quickly determine if the reinforcers being offered have value. High-value reinforcers create razor-sharp focus, while low-value reinforcers create wandering eyes, and sometimes even wandering feet.
- Be aware of the expectations your animal has developed regarding reinforcement. Depending on how and when you use certain reinforcers, animals will develop expectations about those reinforcers. If you always use a high-value treat for certain behaviors, or are in the habit of giving a set number of treats in certain circumstances, your animals will come to anticipate and expect that level or value of reinforcement. You may find that if you change or lower the value of the reinforcer, the animal is disappointed. The animal may actually find the offered treat aversive, because it did not match the expectations. If you want an animal to accept variety in the types of reinforcement you offer, that acceptance must be taught. I encourage the use of reinforcement variety early in every animal’s training.
- Understand the value of access to reinforcement. Always remember that if an animal has regular access to a reinforcer, its effectiveness may diminish. This goes hand-in-hand with understanding the motivating factors behind reinforcement, discussed above. I leave certain toys around for my dogs to play with when I am not home. Since some of the reinforcing value comes from the social interaction of playing with me, the toys are still effective reinforcers even though the dogs have access to them all day. However, if the primary value of the toys is chewing them, the toys may not have as much value if the dogs have had the chance to chew them all day long. Being aware of these possibilities can help you make sure that reinforcers have value when you are ready to use them.
- Look at behavior—the key to successful training. Ultimately, it is most important to look at your animal’s behavior to determine whether your use of reinforcement is successful. If you are seeing behavior that you like and want, your use of reinforcement is working. If you are not seeing desirable behavior, then something in your reinforcement plan needs to change.
Find more great training tips from Ken Ramirez and other world-class training positive training experts in the bestselling training anthology Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers. Buy now!