Intermittent Reinforcement Building Your Dog Training Foundation
Sometimes I forget to go back to the basics sometimes and discuss the importance of foundation building training. I assume too much prior knowledge due to my experience, for those please excuse me! Foundation training refers to the beginning of any training program. Your foundation is built in the beginning and relied on over time as you continue to train.
I always remember back to Sunday school and the parable to the two builders; One house was build upon the sand and one house built upon the rock. The house upon the sand without a strong foundation could not stand up to the conditions and the tests put upon it.
The great thing about dogs, is that you can usually go back and build a stronger foundation if needed as long as there hasn’t been a traumatic event. While training my demonstration dog to do Service Dog work he had a great obedience foundation, but not a good focus foundation when we competed in obedience we went back and I rebuilt his focus.
Intermittent rewards are a very powerful reinforcer, almost one of THE most powerful reinforcers, this is true for humans and animals too!
Let’s look at our rewards:
- No Rewards (everyone needs to know when they are doing a good job, rewards increase likelihood)
- Constant Rewards (everyone gets tired of the same old thing or complacent eventually)
- Progressive Rewards (progressively better rewards can be motivating but difficult to sustain)
- Intermittent Rewards (the “unknown” will I or won’t I get a reward is exciting and locks in behavior)
Intermittent Reward is a schedule in which the number of responses needed to provide reinforcement or reward varies from trial to trial or; unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior.
Slot machines are intermittent reinforcers, one never knows when a reward will be dispersed. The very same behavior can bring about no reinforcement, small reinforcement, or HUGE reinforcement! This can be addictive not only for us humans but also for your dog!
Not knowing “when” you will be rewarded and “with what” creates incentive, and you start chasing the reward, you are convinced if you do it “one more time” you will be reinforced. This type of gambling becomes addictive. The unknown is compelling and solidifies the behavior once the reinforcement is achieved.
Predictability can be boring, if you do “X” you will get “Y” it can even be taken for granted and eventually expected, but when you are given a great reward without knowing its coming it can be life altering. Human and doggy nature makes it impossible to resist intermittent rewards.
Once your dog is performing a task regularly, (he is no longer in the learning stages) you may begin rewarding him intermittently or occasionally for that behavior. This is sometimes why a dog that once knew Sit or Down no longer listens…it’s no longer reinforcing to listen…if however the owner occasionally praises and rewards his dog for even simple behaviors like sitting or laying down, he will begin to see his dog listen more often. Not knowing if he will be rewarded for listening is, after all, addictive.
Be careful not to become predictable! It is human nature to form a schedule or a pattern, we reward our dogs at specific times or when a certain number of behaviors have been performed without even meaning too.
I often saw this when people were trying to teach their dogs to “stay”, they didn’t realize they were rewarding their dogs every 5 seconds. Their dogs would pop up at 6 seconds with a concerned look, like “you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain! I stayed for 5 seconds where is my treat!” They had to be taught or set their watch for 5 seconds, 14 seconds, 3 seconds and 30 seconds. If the dog never knows when it’s coming…but trusts that it will come…he will learn patience.
Try to do your best to be as random as possible! If your dog is becoming more difficult or his behavior is becoming predictable YOU may be getting more predictable or boring! Switch it up and reward your dog for easy accomplishments and harder accomplishments.
I once heard it is like rewarding a child who is learning to play the piano only if the last composition is more difficult and was completed successfully. No one wants to only be rewarded for doing more and more difficult tasks. Sometimes a person wants to be rewarded by doing something more simple or successfully completing something they do well normally.
Your dog is the same way, he doesn’t constantly want you to “up the anti” sometimes he wants to be rewarded for “Sitting” or simply complying with your commands, that is worth a treat isn’t it? I think this is why my dogs are so reliable and so well behaved. They would drop on a dime from 50 yards away if a cat ran past them if I asked them too, because I constantly work on obedience and I reward them for making the correct decisions and listening to me. Constant listening leads to reliability even when under temptation or stress! I almost always have a treat on me, or I am close to being able to get one!
Intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful tool, and one that I think everyone should use. It is pretty simple really, just pay attention and make sure you’re not becoming predictable or boring. If your dog is taking you for granted or expecting reward, you are probably patterning or reinforcing too often!
This should be fun, keep it simple and catch your dog doing good things! Reward him for listening , even if you “EXPECT” him to! Make sure to use jackpots (more treats or better treats) and you will have him won over in one good session! This is the foundation to first-rate, successful dog training!