When we talk about reinforcement in dog training what do we mean? Essentially, it means anything that lights up the reward center in an animals’s brain is a reinforcer. What is reinforcing to one animal is not necessarily reinforcing to another. How can we tell if something is reinforcing to our dog? It is pretty simple. Observe your dog. Does the behavior increase? Does the behavior happen more often and faster? Does the reinforcer light up the dog? If it does, then it is reinforcing. If it does not, then it is not reinforcing.
What one dog finds reinforcing may not be what another dog likes. Dogs vary a lot in this.
In dog training we use food a lot as reinforcement. Food is called a “primary” reinforcer. It is part of the group of reinforcers that make up the dog’s genetic survival kit. Toys can also be primary reinforcers to dogs who like to chase, bite and tug. Toys activate the dog’s prey drive which is a very important part of domestic dog’s genetic heritage. While domestic dogs are considered foragers and not predators, they still carry many of the remnant behaviors of their wild ancestors. All dogs still have these instincts but they are stronger in some breeds than in others.
My friend raises Barbet. Her adult dogs could care less about wiggly, toys that simulate wounded rabbits. I’ve tried. They might chase it a couple times but then…eh, what else you got? But if you offer that same toy up to a German Shepherd puppy or a Border Collie…wahoo!!!! It’s off to the races! Different dogs like different things.
I attended a two day seminar in NY a couple weeks ago. The entire first day was about primary reinforcement, secondary reinforcement and reinforcement strategies. There is a lot to know. One of the best videos in the seminar was of a giant Panda in a zoo who had just earned his favorite reward. The Panda’s most favorite thing in the whole world was a baby blanket that smelled like dryer sheets! The panda draped the blanket over his head and went into a stupor of happiness. The zoo keepers discovered this about the Panda by accident. All species are different in what they find reinforcing. Really!
I have a Border collie, Quicken. He is one of those dogs who is ga-ga over tug toys. He has lots. And each of those toys has a slightly different value to him. And I know exactly what that order is. The left photo at the top of this page shows Quicken’s tug toys in order of lowest to highest, moving from left to right. When I need the big guns I pull out the one on the far right.
I switch up the reinforcer according to what I am training. Food is used primarily for acquiring behavior and training specific position. Once a behavior is strong, toys can be used for motivation and speed.
But then there are these really cool and crazy things called “secondary” reinforcers which are signals that are paired with primary reinforcers so they evoke the same emotional response that primary reinforcers do.
Money is a classic example of a secondary reinforcer. Money itself is not reinforcing. We can’t eat it or have sex with it or protect ourselves from the elements with it (I guess we could burn it to stay warm or maybe make a soft place to lie on). The value of money is the association. We can buy stuff with it! The stuff we can buy with the money is the primary reinforcer not the money itself.
Try different things with your dog and figure out what really rocks his/her world. You might be surprised. Who knows, it might be a baby blanket that smells like dryer sheets! When you find it, use it as currency and only give the dog access to it on your terms. This is smart training.