• Oliver Ringrose

What Is reinforcement?

Welcome to Dog Smart's first Blog post, I wanted to get something out to you as a thank you for all your amazing support.

I’m not going to lie, I’m a little bit nervous, little bit apprehensive, lets see what comes out of it and if I feel reinforced enough to dare write another!

Now I’m going to use some terms you may or may not understand and I will explain in other blogs.

You may have heard or read about using positive reinforcement to get behaviour, you may have heard the word reinforcer, been told something is reinforcing your dog’s behaviour or may think you have been reinforcing a behaviour when you haven’t.

So, what is it then?

Well… In behaviour modification there’s another term that sits above reinforcement, this term is called operant conditioning, it is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment.

In short this is a type of learning that all of us use in puppy classes and with our children and husbands, friends and work colleagues and probably many more!

It’s a subject we can delve into more in another blog

Operant Conditioning what now?

Operant conditioning is divided into 4 quadrants of operant learning, in this model the words positive and negative should be mathematical terms, to add or to subtract.

· Positive Reinforcement (R+)

· Negative Reinforcement (R-)

· Positive Punishment (P+)

· Negative Punishment (P-)

Then what is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is defined as a strengthening of behaviour. Lili Chin Doggie Drawings

Again… Reinforcement is a strengthening of behaviour (that’s very important that bit) to us it usually translates to increasing or decreasing the rate of behaviour.

The important part of this and the bit I’m trying to draw your attention to is what you use as a reinforcer has to be improving or at the very least maintaining the level of the taught behaviour.

This is where I think an issue can arise. Treats, rewards, toys, praise, food, you name it, are not automatically reinforcing.

They are only seen as a reinforcer if they fulfil the criteria of a reinforcer.

One of my teachers and friend, Brad Waggoner of Cold Nose College, once explained a great way of looking at this and also how to determine what quadrant of operant conditioning you are training in, after all if something is not increasing the rate of behaviour, it may actually be decreasing then it’s possible what your using the dog is actually a punisher (through the dogs eyes).

Reinforcement or punishment is the outcome of increasing or decreasing a behaviour

Ask yourself, did the behaviour increase, if the answer is yes then what you're doing is reinforcing the behaviour.

Now… did you add something or take it away?

If you added something then you positively reinforced it R+ , if you took something away then you negatively reinforced it R-.

How does this translate then and why would a behaviour increase if we take something away? How’s that even possible? I should give some examples.

Here`s an example of the recall cue using positive reinforcement

Example No.1

· You’re at home training indoors, you ask your dog to “come” and he does so you give him a piece of kibble

· Next time you ask him, he seeks you faster, even does a default sit for you, all shinny eyed and loving and you give him a piece of kibble, what a star, this dogs a genius.

In that example, beautiful, positive reinforcement, you made it worth his while to stick his bum on the floor, thank you very much.

Let’s spice this up a bit and see where your reinforcer might be failing you.

Example no.2

· You’re at the park, you ask your dog to “come” and he does so you give him a piece of kibble

· Next time you ask him, and he lethargically wanders over, so you give him a piece of kibble. (you know what’s coming right?)

· Then you think, ooo, what’s he up too? I best just get him back. “come” maybe a bit firmer “come”…… “COME!” and now he’s shoulder down smothering himself in fox poo!!

In that example, beautiful, positive reinforcement, it is so worth your dogs while to completely ignore you and get covered in fox poo, next time round he`ll be in that poo double time, maybe even experiment with some horse poo as well!

However, you did not reinforce the recall, the fox poo trumped your kibble!!!

Maybe I just want to smell the daisies!

we have to make it worthwhile for animals to play our stupid little games
Bob Bailey

"Maybe I just want to smell the daisies!"

Never a truer word said Bob (my hero!) and isn’t it more satisfying to work to gain something you want than to avoid something you don’t like, surely that’s better for a good strong bond (it is).

It’s important to understand that the value of a reinforcer can and usually does change depending on the surroundings and stimulus your animal is in when you use it.

The Smart Way

As positive reinforcement trainers we look for ways to strengthen desired behaviours from our animals. We want them to desire doing things that we like, rather than to punish away undesirable behaviours. The very fact we strengthen nice behaviour means there is less time, value and desire to perform, the not so great stuff and our animals will make good choices without it damaging our all important bond. Life doesn't need to be a battle we should thrive in our relationships.

The Negative

Now I don’t want to talk about negative reinforcement to much because it's dangerous if used incorrectly (shock collar trainers) and is worthy of its own blog, but that said I did mention it above and I think most of us have experienced it, possibly without knowing.

The post man analogy

Every day the post man comes to your door, your dog barks at him (go away stranger!) he pops the post through the door and he walks off (or gives your dog the distance its asking for)

Every day this happens, every day your dog barks at him.

Think about it… He barked, the postman went away, his barking increases but something was removed.

Maybe the next blog should be on the ABC of behaviour!

My top tips, know your reinforcer, know their strengths, look at and take note of everything your dog chooses to do for itself, could you somehow use this information to your advantage? (the answer is yes!)

Know that as the level of difficulty increases so should the power of your reinforcers and know that if over arousal kicks in your reinforcers are useless, your dog no longer has the capacity to learn and you should stop, change task, get out of there (another blog opportunity!)

And dogs don’t go deaf, well not all of a sudden anyway!

I hope that makes some sense at least and you enjoyed the read.

That’s Oliver writing a blog post, question is what do you want Becs to write about next?

I will leave you to answer a simple question for me (no pressure!):

Would you start training a new behaviour with the highest known reinforcer you have in your selection?

Pop your answers in the comments below, until next time,

Train Smart, bond tight, have fun.


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