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The Trinity of Reinforcement:

For us to teach a new behaviour that is wanted, strengthen an existing behaviour or to substitute a more appropriate behaviour for one that is less wanted then we need to use reinforcers. This requires us to understand the dog in front of us at a deeper level and to form a relationship that will make working with us relevant to the dog. If we ourselves or the reinforcers we intend to use have no intrinsic value to the dog then we have very little chance of teaching effectively.


This is where the "nothing in life for free" adage comes into the framework. If we are in control of the dog's resources that it values then we can then use these as reinforcers. If the dog gets everything it needs/desires for free then why would it work for you? Just wait till dinnertime and it gets what it needs anyway or it has the ball thrown until it is sated, patted every time it hassles you for social contact...an entitled dog is the outcome of this process.


Another factor is what is called inadvertent reinforcement, this is where your actions are increasing the dogs inappropriate behaviour. An example could be that the dog jumps on the back door so you let it in or that it jumps on visitors so they pat it. If the dog aquires what it wants or needs by it's actions then you have allowed a behaviour to become stronger and more likely to happen again. Realising your role in this is paramount to success in having better outcomes for both of you.


So what is reinforcement? Have a read through some definitions below:


What is reinforcement in psychology?

Reinforcement means you are increasing a behaviour, and punishment means you are decreasing a behaviour. Reinforcement can be positive or negative, and punishment can also be positive or negative. All reinforcers (positive or negative) increase the likelihood of a behavioural response.


What are the two main types of reinforcement?

The 2 types of reinforcement are:

  • Positive reinforcement – adding a factor to increase a behaviour.

  • Negative reinforcement – removing a factor to increase a behaviour.

What does role of reinforcement mean?

Reinforcement can be used to teach new skills, teach a replacement behaviour for an interfering behaviour, increase appropriate behaviours, or increase on-task behaviour (AFIRM Team, 2015). Reinforcement may seem like a simple strategy that all teachers use, but it is often not used as effectively as it could be.


What is positive vs negative reinforcement?

It involves the removal of a negative condition, or aversive stimulus, in order to strengthen a positive behaviour or outcome. Where positive reinforcement is about adding something (positive), negative reinforcement is about detracting something (negative) to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome.

Reinforcement can be affected by various factors, including the following:

  • Satiation: the degree of need. ...

  • Immediacy: the time elapsed between the desired behaviour and the reinforcement. ...

  • Size: the magnitude of a reward or punishment can have a big effect on the degree of response.

How can you tell if something is reinforcing?

In summary, reinforcement happens after the behaviour and strengthens the likelihood of the behaviour happening again in the future. Remember, for something to be considered reinforcement, it MUST occur after the behaviour AND increase the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated.


Can you use both positive and negative reinforcement?

Results of the current study suggest that a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement was most effective for increasing one participant's compliance to simple tasks. One possible explanation for these results is that the combination of both contingencies increased the individual value of each reinforcer.


So now we know what a reinforcer is, does, how to use etc but what is your odg's best reinforcer? How do we choose the right one in the moment? That my friend is the million dollar question that even seasoned trainers do not always gamble and win on. The best option I have found is to make sure that we condition a need for various reinforcers so that we can flow from one to the next according to what the dog is showing that it needs in the moment.

For this to be effective then we need control over the dog's resources and then know how to use them well when the time comes. I have divided them into what I call the Trinity.


TOUCH

If we have a good relationship with the dog that has trust, tolerance, social affiliation and a need for physical contact then we can then use that to reinforce behaviours. A dog that has trust issues, does not like to be patted or is twitchy about spatial pressure will not see Touch as a good thing, it could actually be seen as a punisher instead.

Building tolerance for touch is a very gradual process and you need to read the dog carefully.

A dog that wants contact will move into your space, a dog that keeps its' distance needs to be allowed to do so. Never be that creepy guy at the bar trying to grab a feel. So if your groomer or vet have trouble reading your dog then please advocate for your dog and build a tolerance so that they can be comfortable with the process.

Massage, myotherapy, bowens can all be pathways to increase the dogs understanding of touch being a good thing as well as a really good way of maintaining peak health. Sometimes brushing can be a transitional way of bridging human touch for the dog. What ever path you choose to try, fostering a need for the social contact of touch is a valuable asset to your training kit. You always have a pat in your pocket!


FOOD:

If a dog has an appetite then we have a pathway to motivate them into a behaviour, teach a new one via luring or to reinforce a known behaviour via an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.

If the dog is sated by 'free feeding' then this important pathway is lost with the only option of very high value treats to tempt them into at least a moderate level of participation. Unless you are working with a Lab...then that appetite NEVER wanes.

My training treats were created due to this issue as most dogs I work with in consults free feed and are rarely hungry. The highest 'value' food group to a dog is meat based protein so this is what I prefer to use as a motivator and reinforcer in training. If this is to work well then the dog needs to be empty, so sometimes a meal will be skipped or with held and then used for the training. The dog 'learns to earn' and this creates quick pathways to turn behaviour around. A dog is a wonderful opportunist and will quickly go into the mindset of " so what do I have to do to get what I want?" routine. I love that moment of barter, where the dog will begin to offer behaviours in the hope of attaining what I have. This is where the Markers come into play and communication begins. If I am not relevant to the dog then this will never happen and so learning cannot be achieved.

So instead of just one sit then release to an entire bowl of food, try having the bowl up high and taking one piece at a time to work with. Run through your list of new skills one by one and get some decent reps in of the behaviours you wish to strengthen. Block and stop the alternatives via your lead or spatial pressure to nudge the dog back to the preferred pathways. Don't 'waste' food as an opportunity to teach!


PLAY:

Play is often a very under rated way of teaching yet more recent studies suggest that play combined as part of learning actually increase information uptake by at least 40%. Play is also a fantastic way of building relationship with your dog and creating very valuable pathways.

Most often problem behaviours in dog's actually stem from the fact that they take their 'joy' from the environment totally externally to the owner. It may be random strangers for pats, dogs to play with, rabbits to chase etc. By allowing this need to build to an obsession you are teaching your dog to ignore you, that you have very little value to them and that all the fun in the world comes from 'taking' on opportunity. Alongside this is that when we deny them access to what they want then they get frustrated, pulling on the lead, barking, lunging etc or by escaping and going out alone to seek.

The owner has been inadvertently reinforcing these behaviours by either poor management and allowing the dog to escape/be off lead/poor fencing etc thus creating a very strong need in the dog for what they actually don't want the dog doing. It may be that the dog is onlead but as the dog drags them towards what they want to access then the handler obediently trots along behind and allows the pulling to work for the dog. This rude behaviour in the dog is thus reinforced and becomes the pathway to attain what they desire.

So let's flip this picture totally. What does the dog want most? Social interactions? predatory/prey outlet? Fun? an outlet for their pent up energy? An outlet for perhaps low level anxiety? A pathway to build brave and feel more comfortable out in environment?

What does the handler want most? A dog that looks to them for fun? a dog that loves to participate in what we are doing be it a set game or just a random interaction on our walks? A dog that will offer behaviour in the hope that the game will be the reward? A dog that can have access to genetic outlet and drive safely and appropriately?


Best of all a dog that understands when it is the time for play and when it is time to just be settled and calm.

So as per above with the food if we control the resource that provides play then we have a way of using it as a powerful reinforcer. If the dog has free access then why would it work for you?

Another aspect is that people and dogs play differently, a dog will naturally provide a much more engaging game than a human. If you have multiple dogs then you have to strike a balance between dog to dog gaming as well as gaming that only involves the single dog and you. With holding a 'special' toy that you have built a high level of need for can be that pathway. I use the Kong Wubbers for this and my dogs always light up when one is pulled out of the training kit. Learning to play in a way that the dog finds safe, engaging, challenging and rewarding is a skill all in itself. Like any dog training skill it requires practice, empathy and opportunity to make yourself better at it.


So in summary, if you have a dog that moves into your hands willingly and with much enjoyment then you have TOUCH as part of your kit.

If you have a dog that understands that it's calories can be earned via offering behaviours then you have a powerful teaching tool.

If you have a dog that finds joy in play with you and is brave enough to participate then you have the ultimate way of being a hell of lot more shiny than the environment that you are competing against for your dog's attention.











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