Intermittent Reinforcement

what does it mean and why should I care?

Treats are one of the easiest types of reinforcement to use. They are also easy to teach which is why food rewards are one of the most common things to use in training classes. Food is pretty important to survival and so most brains encourage eating by releasing reinforcing hormones. This makes food a pretty effective tool for animal training… most of the time.

Unfortunately, food’s not always the top priority for dogs; what about when your dog gets bored of food? What do you do when your dog would rather be playing at the park than coming to you, even though you have hot dogs?

Intermittent Reinforcement to the rescue!

Intermittent reinforcement basically means making rewards more random. I almost always keep treats mixed. I like to put little scraps of cheese or hot dog into a bag of mostly kibble and use that for training. This helps the treats stay interesting to the dog, and builds in a low level intermittency to the reinforcements, even when the dog is learning something new.

Weaning off of treats.

Intermittent reinforcement is a great way to wean off treats. Instead of going from treats to no reward at all, I like to start switching the types of reinforcements I use. Treat, treat, game of tug! Treat, game of tug, teat, fetch! Scritches, treat, game of fetch, treat, game of tug. I have found this to be a lot less frustrating for most dogs. Some dogs like games even more than food. For more on weaning off treats, see this article here.

Ok, this sounds like a lot of work.

Admittedly, being versatile with your rewards can take some extra planning and thought. You’ll need to figure out what your dog finds rewarding other than food, and have any equipment needed on hand. It might be a ball to chase, playing tug with a rope, but sometimes snuggles and praise is all it takes. My dog loves being held so much that I use leaping into my arms as a reward, even for recall at the dog park! Something that can make it easier is having a belt or fanny pack by the door with treats and a toy or two. Instead of holding your dog’s leash, you can attach it to your this belt/fanny pack so that your hands will be free to dole out the snacks, games and scratches!

There are many ways you can make intermittent reinforcement work for you and your dog, be it simply having a bag of mixed treats or an arsenal of toys and games. You might have been using intermittent reinforcement this whole time.

What are some of your dog’s favorite rewards? What’s the strangest thing your dog finds rewarding? Comment below, we are curious to know!

Written by Nea Deptuch, Dog Trainer at Tammy’s Training Canine Services

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