Rewards & Reinforcement
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
These two words you will hear all the time in dog training but what do they really mean and how can you use them more effectively when training your dog.
The definition of Reward- a thing given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement.
The definition of Reinforcement- the action or process of reinforcing or strengthening.
To know what is reinforcing a behaviour, we have to ask, What happened immediately after the behaviour (the consequence); and Did the behaviour increase? So was it reinforced? For example, I call my dog back to me in the park and when she returns I tell her she's a good girl and affectionately pat her head. She runs off to play and the next time I call her she doesn't run back. If you look at this scenario the reward that I used was a verbal good girl and a pat on the head, it did not increase the behaviour of my dog returning to me so it did not reinforce the behaviour. The value of the reward (pat on the head) was not valuable to my dog at that moment.
It's important to know the value of rewards to your dog that you are working with then you will have a better chance of reinforcing the behaviour. The dog decides the value of each reward, not you, so put yourself in your dog's shoes and work out what they find rewarding. Some dogs value play more than others, some dogs value affection more than others. If you look at all the rewards that you can use whilst training your dog and attach the value to each of them then you can use these more wisely. Some behaviours are harder than others due to other external factors such as the environment so using high-value rewards in these moments is vital.
Timing is everything!
The timing of the reward delivery is also extremely important, the behaviour can only be reinforced if the reward is delivered at the right time. This is when using a marker comes into play, a marker is used as a signal to the dog that they've done the right thing and a reward is on its way. An example of a marker can be a clicker or a verbal word such as 'Yes'. A marker promises the dog that reinforcement is on its way. Without the use of a marker then the dog has to figure out what the reward was for, so it's more effective to intentionally use a marker when training.
If you want to strengthen a behaviour then you must follow that behaviour with a consequence that your dog values.