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Leerburg Dog Training Blog

The best source for dog training news, tricks and treats, right from world class leaders in dog training.

The best source for dog training news, tricks and treats, right from world class leaders in dog training.

Pet Dogs Reinforcement Schedule

If you are training a pet dog and using reward-based training it is important that you understand reinforcement schedules. It is also important that pet dog trainers understand that their dogs must remain on random rewards for the rest of the dog’s life.

There are several ways of rewarding our dogs:
1. Continuous Reinforcement
2. Variable Reinforcement
3. Random Reinforcement

Understanding what each of these categories are and then knowing when to apply them is important.

Continuous reinforcement would seem obvious. The dog gets rewarded every time it performs a behavior we ask. There are things that influence continuous reinforcement, like how hungry a dog is, if the food reward is of high value to the dog,etc. There is also a limited number of rewards that can be given during training before the dog is no longer hungry. When that happens the food reward is no longer motivating to the dog.

It’s always recommended to start with food rewards over toy rewards because most puppies have food drive before they have play drive. Also, we can give far more food rewards in a training session than we can toy rewards. In addition, the dog must understand the rules of play before toys can be used. Using play and the rules that must be established is too large of a topic to be covered in this blog post.

The term variable reinforcement refers to how many pieces of food we will give in a reward event. By that we mean in the beginning we may give 1 piece pf food as a reward, then the next time we offer 3 pieces, then 2 pieces, always a random number. The purpose for this is to keep the dog guessing and engaged so it never knowns when the reward event is finished.

We use variable reinforcement to stop the dog from checking out after it thinks the event is over. We see dogs checking out when trainers only give one food reward. Dogs are not dumb, they quickly recognize when a trainer consistently only offers one reward. They know there is a break, maybe only for 5 seconds, before training goes on. They will take the reward and then look around and lose focus on the trainer.

Trainers can start using variable rewards as soon as they have finished charge the mark training. Variable reward are actually part of continuous reinforcement.

When the dog is ready we will wean him or her from continuous reinforcement by going to a random reinforcement schedule. In this phase the dog is not rewarded every time it performs a behavior. Rather it is rewarded on a random schedule.

We start our training sessions by rewarding the first time and then skipping a reward on the next behavior, then reward the dog again on the third time then the second time, then the first, then the 2nd and so on.

Our long-term goal is to be totally random in when the dog gets a reward. Being random is hard for people to do. We are creatures of habit and our dogs are masters at reading our body language, our behavior and figuring out our patterns. My friend, Michael Ellis, recommends going to google and search on “random number generators”

When to start random rewards can be hard for new trainers to figure out. Our end goal is to have a situation where the dog does not get a reward and it gets frustrated. Frustration builds motivation and drive, so the next time it tries harder.

The problem comes if a dog is moved off continuous rewards to random rewards too soon. When that happens it loses the drive to work. They think “No reward is coming, why bother?”

There will always be a slight dip in performance when dogs go to a random reward schedule. In the beginning if the reward is only given every other time the dip in performance is temporary but if the dogs are moved to random too soon the willingness to work goes away. If that happens the solution is to go back on continuous rewards for a while and try later.

The caveat to this is when dogs are left on a continuous reward program too long that dip in motivation goes away for longer periods of time. In other words, the dogs simply lose motivation to comply because they have had the reward every time for so long and now it’s gone – so they think “the heck with it” and they stop working.

When new dog owners have never trained a dog before go through an obedience class or if they send their dog off to be trained by a professional and they don’t keep their dog on random reinforcement schedule the dogs will eventually stop following commands.

Most pet dog owners don’t have a lot of interest in becoming serious dog trainers. My advice to people who want to make a living training dogs is if you feel your potential client has zero interest in learning anything about your training system and they don’t seem to be interested in what they need to do when they take their dog home, walk away from that client. You can do it politely by saying you don’t think what you offer would make them happy.

The fact is if they won’t continue random reinforcement their dog is going to fail within a short period of time when it goes back into their home environment.

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