Finding new reinforcers

I’m working on a project right now about reinforcers. (More on this soon in an upcoming post!) So, as a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about reinforcement, reinforcers, and the different types of things trainers use during training to reward behavior.

Many horse clicker trainers primarily use food during training to reinforce correct behavior. The same goes for dog trainers, although trainers who participate in dogs sports often use playing with toys as well.

However, there are many, many, many other types of things and activities that we can use to reinforce correct behavior. Spend awhile sometime watching your pet in his natural environment. What does he spend his time doing? What does he enjoy doing? How does he behave in order to access the things he wants?

If you spend time observing your animal, you’ll probably start to see that there are lots of different ways he interacts with his environment, many of which are things he likes to do or enjoys doing. Many of these things, with a bit of creativity on the part of the trainer, can be used to reinforce correct behavior during training.

For example, I usually use yummy food treats when training my parent’s dog, Ginger. However, Ginger loves watching squirrels and also loves smelling things when she is outside. With a bit of creative engineering, I could use both of these activities to reinforce correct behavior. (Check out these two posts for ideas about how to use bunnies and squirrels as reinforcers.)

Now, food is usually a good reinforcer because most animals will work for food treats most of the time. However, it can be helpful to find and develop other reinforcers for a variety of reasons. For example, having other reinforcers available can be very helpful if you find yourself in a situation where your animal no longer wants your food treats.

Also, different types of reinforcers can help you create different types of behavior or even different versions of the same behavior. For instance, imagine teaching a dog to lie down and then stay in the down position until asked to get up. To teach this behavior, an agility trainer might use the opportunity to play with a toy or chase a ball as a reinforcer. This will create energy and anticipation, so that the dog is ready to spring up and run forward, when asked. A pet dog trainer, on the other hand, who is teaching a dog to lie down and stay relaxed in that position for an extended period of time, might use ear scratches and slow petting to reinforcer correct behavior. This will help add calmness and stillness to the behavior.

Here’s a video that I really love. This is from my friend Eileen, who blogs at Eileen and Dogs. Eileen does some agility with her dog Summer and wanted to increase Summer’s speed on the weave poles obstacle. To do this, she practiced weave poles using playing with water from the garden hose as a reinforcer. This is an activity that Summer really gets excited about and, as a result, this helped increase Summer’s speed and drive when running through the weave poles.

Watch on YouTube: Summer weaves for novel reinforcement

Do you have any creative or unusual things that you use to reinforce your animal’s behavior during training?

Also, do you have any questions about reinforcers or reinforcement? I plan to write some more blog posts soon about reinforcement and I would love to incorporate some of your questions into my posts.

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