Join us on June 4 for a 1.5-hour session on keeping your dog’s attention!
Reinforcement: What it is, and what it isn’t
Dog trainers love to talk about reinforcement, “reinforcing our dogs” and “the best” reinforcers. Reinforcement in psychological or behavior analysis terms, however, is really just one of two labels: positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. “Ah ha!” you may be thinking. “Easy. Positive reinforcement is the good one, and negative reinforcement is the bad one.”
Or, you’ve heard someone say, “I tried positive reinforcement with my dog, but it just didn’t work. So I had to switch to negative reinforcement. I feel bad, but it’s just what had to be done.”
Hmm. In both cases, we’re misunderstanding the behavior analyst’s definition of reinforcement. Let’s take a minute to address reinforcement, in behavioral terms.
How does reinforcement work?
Behavior is lawful — it follows certain rules, as demonstrated by the historical work of John Watson, Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, and others.
A stimulus is anything an animal can perceive. An aversive stimulus is a stimulus an organism tries to avoid. An appetitive stimulus is a stimulus an organism tries to get, or to get more of. Dog trainers often use the shorthand “aversive” for aversive stimulus when referring to the use of something a dog doesn’t like in training, and “reward” for appetitive stimulus, when referring to the use of something the dog wants.
Reinforcement is anything that causes behavior to increase. To know whether a behavior has been reinforced, we must ask, “Did the behavior increase?” If the behavior did not increase, it was not reinforced! This is why we must never say, “Reinforcement didn’t work.”
Reinforcement, by definition, always works! If you provide the animal with an appetitive stimulus (piece of liver) for a particular behavior (standing still), but instead of standing still, the animal jumps and barks, we can say with confidence that the liver did not act as a reinforcer for the target behavior, standing still, at that time. The dog was not reinforced for standing still.
Let’s have an example. Say you accept a job stuffing envelopes. You stuff 3,000 envelopes and at the end of the week, you are given $50 for stuffing 3,000 envelopes. When you are given another opportunity to stuff 3,000 envelopes in one week, will you accept? If you do not accept, the $50 may have been a reward, but it was not a reinforcer. Why not? Your target behavior, envelope-stuffing, did not increase.
Is feeding a treat reinforcing?
To know what is reinforcing a behavior, we must look at two things: 1) What happened immediately after the behavior (the consequence); and 2) Did the behavior increase? (Was it reinforced?)
Here we come to two more tricky terms. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something after a behavior occurs, followed by the target behavior increasing. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something after a behavior occurs, also followed by the target behavior increasing. The easiest way to keep these straight is to think of “positive” as adding something, and “negative” as subtracting something, and “reinforcement” as increasing the behavior. For either positive or negative reinforcement to occur, the behavior must increase. Whether the stimulus we add or remove to increase the behavior is appetitive or aversive, is up to the animal’s way of thinking at that time — not our intentions!
Myths about reinforcement in dog training
There’s one more misconception about reinforcement: that using stuff the dog wants in training is a “type” of training. It’s all training! There are only two ways to motivate dogs. The first is by using aversive stimuli. The second is by using appetitive stimuli. Even the nicest or harshest training method you can imagine still relies on the principles of behavior.
If you training using a mix of aversive and appetitive stimuli, you are following the laws of behavior. Every trainer is working within the confines of operant and associative learning: There is nothing else. The choice for the trainer is not whether or not to use the principles of behavior, but to learn to use them effectively and in a way that is respectful of the animal, or not.
If you’re interested in these concepts and want to dig deeper, grab an introductory psychology textbook, or pick up a copy of Pamela Reid’s dog training book, “Excel-erated Learning.”
Reid, Pamela J. Excel-erated learning : explaining in plain English how dogs learn and how best to teach them. Berkeley, Calif: James & Kenneth, 1996.
McLeod, S. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved June 05, 2016, from www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
Most dogs between five and 18 months, large or small, play hard — it’s up to us to locate toys that are both safe and last more than 20 seconds once the dog starts using them!
Soft latex or plush toys aren’t suitable for most growing dogs (although some dogs enjoy carrying a fleecy toy like it’s a puppy). Stuffed animals, particularly those with squeakers, tend to be disemboweled after only minutes of play, and latex ones are torn apart even faster.
A game of tug with you or another dog makes many dogs’ lists of all-time fun activities, so knotted rope bones, strong rubber tug toys or large plastic bones are good additions to the toy box.
My first criterion when choosing a dog toy is, “Will it last longer than a week?” If the answer is yes, then the toy likely passes the safety test, as well. The second is, “Will my dog play with it?” Toy-treat combos, such as products made from rawhide, might be enjoyed by your dog, but don’t qualify as interactive or provide much mental stimulation. While some dogs are happy to make a toy from anything, it’s important to start teaching your dog early in puppyhood which objects are for playing, and which objects belong to you.
Here are five of my favorite dog toys that can stand up to rough players:
The Buster Cube is a perfect way to feed your dog if you don’t have time to trade the dog’s dinner for a few tricks or obedience behaviors. The cube has a maze-like center that you fill with kibble or treats, and your dog rolls it this way and that to get the food out. It’s a great way to add a little work to your dog’s day!
By far the favorite of the chase-and-slam crowd at my place, the Jolly Ball comes in several sizes to suit any tough pup. I buy the 10- and 8-inch Jolly Balls in pairs and leave them in the yard for a handy game or fetch, chase or tug. They don’t deflated when punctured, which means they last practically forever. The Jolly Ball also comes without the handle, in a “Bounce-n-Play” version.
If ever a toy was designed specifically for big, strong adolescent dogs, the Kong Company has made it happen. The Kong Extreme is made for heavy chewers and can take more abuse than its red counterpart. If you have one a dog who does not enjoy chasing or chewing the Kong, insert small treats, or stuff it full of canned food and freeze — this will generate interest!
The Jawz disc by Hyperflite is an extremely durable disc that flies just like a regular one. Most dogs will destroy a regular plastic disc in one 20-minute play session. Although puppies and young dogs should not jump to catch discs until their growth plates have closed, you can begin teaching dogs of any age how to grab short tosses and pick up rollers off the ground.
JW Pet Invincible Rings
These heavy-duty interlocking rings are perfect for joint tug games, whether with you or another dog. They withstand dogs who are strong pullers and chompers! A determined dog can sit with this toy and chew it apart, so it is best used under supervision and not left alone with your dog.
Kong Goodie Bone
Even dogs who aren’t chewers like this Kong Goodie Bone, and dogs who are chewers love it! A little peanut butter or cream cheese, or a biscuit stuffed in one end provides hours of tough-chewing fun. My dogs like to “share” it between them with endless games of tug. Perfect for your female who likes to play, “I have it and you don’t”! Put it in the refrigerator or freezer first to sooth teething jaws.
Hol-ee Roller Ball
Also not a chew toy, these ball-shaped toys stand up to heavy use primarily because it can’t be punctured!
Be sure to inspect all your dog’s toys regularly, and replace any that are worn or have pieces missing.