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Many people struggle with positive reinforcement training because they don’t yet understand what a “reinforcer” really is. The golden rule of dog training is “all behaviour that gets reinforced gets repeated.” Simply put, a reinforcer is anything that a dog will work to get – not just something that they like.
Many dogs like getting praised by their owners, but praise is only a reinforcer for a dog if they are willing to put energy into getting access to it. If they find it pleasant, but won’t work for it, it’s not a reinforcer.
To use a human analogy, many humans enjoy the smell of freshly cut grass, but very few of us would be willing to put the effort into mowing a lawn just to smell it. We find the smell pleasant, and yet we don’t race outside to smell our neighbour’s grass clipping when we hear them mowing.In this scenario, the smell of freshly cut grass is not a reinforcer, even though we like it, because we aren’t willing to expend energy to access it.
Though home-cooked brownies may work as a reinforcer for the person in the scenario above, they will not be a reinforcer for all humans. Some people may dislike overly sweet foods, and others might like brownies, but not enough to go to the effort of baking them.
Similarly, what a dog find reinforcing is specific to the individual. Some dogs love food above all else, others prefer playing with toys, smelling new scents, chasing prey or meeting new people. In order to successfully train your dog, you must first determine what is reinforcing to them.
Just because something is a reinforcer to an individual in one scenario, doesn’t mean that it will be a reinforcer in all scenarios.
Our brownie-loving human may not find brownies reinforcing if they have just eaten a whole batch, or immediately after Christmas dinner. The brownies would also not be reinforcing if there was something that the person wanted more than brownies in a given situation. If you offered to trade someone a hundred dollars for their brownie, most people would choose the money. Resources also stop being reinforcing when they are available for free. If the brownie-lover was getting free, freshly made brownies delivered every day, they probably wouldn’t bother going to the effort to make their own.
Good trainers are able to identify what is reinforcing for their dog in a given situation. For example, many dogs do not find food reinforcing when out on a walk. They may enjoy eating the food and take it when offered, but they are not willing to work for it. Usually this is because there is some other resource that they want more, like meeting another dog, smelling new scents or getting to the park for a run. Food is also less likely to be reinforcing in this scenario because most dogs get fed for free.
If you struggle to motivate your dog, we recommend contacting your local positive reinforcement trainer for help.