A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Think of a reinforcer as a paycheck. What would you do if your boss informed you all paychecks would stop? How long would you stay?
I am a positive reinforcement trainer. This means I add a desired reinforcer to help keep a behavior going. I can also remove the reinforcer to help stop undesired behaviors. For example, Sparky greets me by sitting, he gets a cookie or something that has meaning for him. This increases the likelihood of the behaviors continuing. “OOOOOO! I goes up to lady and sits, I gets good stuffs.” The more I practice and reinforce; the more Sparky will give the behavior. I am proactive with lessons. This means I teach what I need from the start instead of waiting for repeated mistakes and then addressing issues.
The value of a reinforcer is determined by the recipient. I teach this as Spinach vs Ice Cream Sundaes. Would the average person rather have spinach or a sundae? Most people may say sundae. What if you were severely lactose intolerant, would a sundae work? No. Why? Think about what happens to the body and how the body could be affected. What if I had a child who feared roller coasters, yet I was trying to teach him to wait in line? Would riding that roller coaster reinforce the desired behavior? What if I have a dog who is not comfortable with touch? Would a pat reinforce a desired behavior?
This is Roscoe – he had only been in his home a couple weeks when we started working. He was very leash reactive. I taught his human how to use a higher value reinforcement to keep the desired behaviors going. Even when given a chance to stop and sniff, his owner was higher value due to what she had. Roscoe does get regular sniff walks too!
Primary reinforcers are things organisms are born needing including food, drink, pleasure, touch. Think of going to a pool on a summer day. You are hot and miserable. The pool cools you and brings you comfort. Food is a primary reinforcer often used in animal work. Then there are secondary reinforcers. These are things that have no value unless paired with a primary reinforcer. Money is a great secondary reinforcer for us. With money we can buy food, drink, shelter, comfort, things that bring pleasure. If I have no outlets to but any of these, say stranded in the desert with nothing around, money would not reinforce. You have no way to use it. Verbal praise is another secondary reinforcer. It has no meaning unless paired with something of meaning. So, when people say, “My dog should work because he loves me,” this may not be reinforcing to the dog.
How can you test a reinforcer? See what has most value to your pet. One of my past dogs was ball obsessed. Inside food was a good reinforcer. On walks, I could use food as well. In the backyard, however, if he saw his favorite ball, food was ignored. So, what would I use to reinforce behaviors at that point? The ball. Before my daughter enters the show ring with our dogs, she pulls out various foods. The one the dog turns on for the most is the one that comes into the ring. When I go to client homes, I bring a variety of foods in my bag to see what ones work the best. I want dogs to WANT to work with me because I am associated with good stuff.
Here is an example using various things a dog may like and how I would categorize them for value based on what reaction I got from the dog.
$100 – Slim Jim snacks, liver jerky, boiled liver slices,
$75 – Venison, Rabbit, Alligator, Duck, hot dog slices
$50 – Chicken jerky, Puperoni,
$25 – Fresh Pet food roll
$20 – Red barn food roll
$15 – Peanut butter treats
$10 – Sweet potato treats
$5 – Dog cookies
$1 – Cheerios
Your dog will be different from my dogs so make sure you test things!
You can do the same for games and such used to reinforce behaviors, patting, etc.
Use reinforcers for training. They work, they increase bonding, they increase the effectiveness of our work.
- Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training