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The "Art" of Reinforcement

Learning how to truly understand the placement of rewards to reap the benefits of reinforcement. By Stacy Goudy

Art? Is proper reinforcement really an art? I believe it is. For some it comes incredibly naturally. For others it is something that requires much thought and effort, and for a small number of individuals, it is almost impossible to master.

I am one of the lucky ones. Reinforcement comes very natural to me. Whether human or animal, it is very clear to me that learning occurs much faster in a rewarding environment. It goes much deeper than that though.

The reasons for reinforcement are many - we reinforce to motivate, we reinforce to maintain motivation, we reinforce as a catalyst for learning. I am fairly certain that everyone understands these points. The problem lies in truly understanding the "placement" of reward to truly reap the benefits of reinforcement as a training tool.

Before I go any deeper into this, let's deal with the elephant in the room. The portion of the dog training population that feels rewards are unnecessary in dog training. I know that over the years many dogs have been and are still trained without the use of tangible reinforcers.

That does not make it right. Without tangible reinforcements, it is incredibly difficult for a dog to learn to make correct choices based on a clear understanding, rather than fear of failure. I think there is a lot of learned helplessness that occurs when we expect dogs to perform without a true understanding of the behaviors we are asking of them.

Learned helplessness is not having the ability to choose the right or wrong decision because the difference between the two has never been taught. The dog is in a perpetual state of confusion. Different temperaments will deal with this condition in different ways -- from total shut down, to taking control and running amuck.

So, we not only need to be willing to use tangible reinforcers, we must have them readily available to mark proper responses, and most importantly, know where and when to reinforce.

In training situations, it is not unlikely to see a handler withhold all reward until the end of whatever sequence they are working on at the moment. The problems with this are many:

  1. You are missing so many fantastic opportunities to reward great things that occurred prior to the end of the sequence.
  2. By ignoring the great things that happened on course and only rewarding the end you are reinforcing exactly that: the end! There are many dogs that are a bit droopy all the way around the course and perk up amazingly at the end of the run. Why do you suppose this is??
  3. You are missing opportunities to build value for the exercises which translates into speed and enthusiasm. Once you have truly built value for the exercises, your dog will never notice that the toys and treats are not showing up at trials.

I have even heard people say that they will reward the dog when "they" (the handler) get it right! I think the whole wrongness of this statement is pretty self-explanatory and needs no further discussion.

On a happier note, let's talk about when and where to reinforce.

Proper placement and timing of rewards will help build drive and maintain motivation simply because it breeds clarity! You should be rewarding your dog for all behaviors that you would like to continue and avoid reinforcing behaviors that you would like to extinguish.

That might seem overly simplified. However, if we could keep our training simple, it would be far easier! 

When you make a mistake in cuing your dog, you should reward your dog for responding! This is because the behaviors that your dogs are offering are based on the information you are providing. If that information is contradictory to what your intentions were, the dog is still correct since they were reading what you were saying/showing, not what you were thinking!


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