This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section One of the Beginner's Course

Dog Training Basics
Page Six of a twelve-page section

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Intermittent Reinforcement

When a response is reinforced only some of the time, we say it is being intermittently reinforced. When it comes to teaching your dog any sort of skill, reinforcing the targeted response continuously is always the faster path, and an all around easier row to hoe.

Fading Reinforcement For Established Responses

There is no doubt about it. Whether you are teaching your dog a new command or you just want to encourage him to repeat some desirable response that he emits spontaneously, by far, the best way to foster any new behavior is to reinforce that response absolutely every time it is emitted.

However, after a once new response has been repeated enough over a long enough period of time to have become well established, you should begin to thin out your reinforcement for that particular behavior, which means, essentially, that you should stop reinforcing your dog every time he engages in that response and begin, instead, to reinforce him less and less often over time for doing that particular thing.

On an instinctive level, it just kind of makes sense to think that continuing to dispense continuous reinforcement to your dog for making a given response, would make that response more resistant to extinction. However, the product of hard research tells us that it is not so.

The fact is that an established response that is maintained on an intermittent schedule will actually be rendered more resilient and, therefore, more resistant to extinction. What that means in a practical sense is that your well-mannered, superbly trained dog will remain well trained for longer if you begin to slowly back away from your schedule of continuous reinforcement for any given response after that response becomes well established.

Not only will thinning the reinforcement make your dog's well-established responses more resilient, it will also save you a lot of time. In addition, fading the reinforcement for established behaviors serves to shift the emphasis over onto any new responses that you may currently be teaching your dog, which are, in comparison, still being reinforced every time they are emitted.

To learn about how to fade the reinforcement for those responses your dog has mastered, please go to our page on fading and read the first section, which is titled Fading Out the Reinforcement.

Try to Generate a Little Excitement

When teaching your dog to obey your commands, you can add some much needed excitement to the process by shouting out your commands in a well-conceived gladdening voice. Just be sure that you gradually get your dog used to your raised voice. After all, you want your dog to think that you are shouting because you are having so much fun, and because you are thrilled by your interactions with him. Therefore, you need to gradually build up to it so you don't terrify your dog by suddenly shouting for reasons that are not clear to him.

Also, you need to be very careful about adding in enthusiastic shouts if you are working with a dog whose history is unknown to you, because a dog that has been abused may well interpret shouting as a manifestation of anger and a precursor to a coming assault; worse yet, he could decide to strike preemptively.

If you hope to get your dog under anything approaching perfect control, you will need to make training big fun for the animal. One of the best ways to do that is to frequently conduct his training sessions in a location where he loves to go, like a park or a secluded wood.

If you keep that up, then, at some point, your dog will begin to associate his obedience training with doing enjoyable things in fun places. You just need to make it a point to intersperse many very short training sessions with walking, romping, fetching, and all the other things that he loves to do.

Many times through the years, I have seen resentful dogs who sulked their way through their training, who were transformed into active, enthusiastic participants after they had come to associate obedience work with the opportunity to leave the yard and see a bit of the outside world - for a change.

Just make it a point not to attempt working with your trainee in a location where there are distractions potent enough to overwhelm his ability to concentrate and tend to the business at hand.

Teaching your dog to ignore distractions is a worthy goal, but it needs to be done systematically by gradually introducing distracters into his training environment using fading procedures, numbers five and six.

The Need to Remove All Unnecessary Aversives From the Training Process

One way to make training more fun for your dog, then, is to dispense reinforcement for correct behavior. However, along with making sure that your dog finds reinforcement available for doing right, you should also take great care to remove any pointless irritants from the process.

For example, if in the course of obedience training your dog, you decide to leave him alone for a few minutes to test the parameters of his stay command, make sure that he is comfortably situated in a safe, shady place, as opposed to leaving him out in the sun.

Among other things, you should make certain that your dog has drinking water readily available and check to make sure that his collar and halter are not chaffing.

It's really just a matter of common sense. Since it is essential that your dog enjoy his training, you should take care to remove all unnecessary and pointless aversives from the training process.

After all, an irritant is, essentially, an aversive. It is, therefore, impossible to truly establish a schedule of continuous reinforcement for your dog until you first somehow remove all of the irritants from the training environment.

The Most Reinforcing Reinforcers of All

Any reward that is strong enough to cause the rewarded behavior to be emitted more often in the future is said to be a reinforcer. For example, if your throw a stick after your dog brings it to you, and that results in your dog bringing you sticks more often in the future, then we say that throwing the stick was the reinforcer that caused your dog to start bringing you sticks on a regular basis.

There is a special class of reinforcers called primary reinforcers that also result in an increase in the rewarded response. However, primary reinforcers are like reinforcement on steroids, so they tend to bring the targeted behavior into being a whole lot faster than any results that you could ever hope to get by using other, less compelling reinforcers alone.

When I first got into dog training, I spent a good, long time on my own working with a German Shepherd pup, getting advice from library books, but mostly just doing what made sense to me. I was six months into the process before I had an opportunity to watch an experienced dog trainer work, and I was stunned by what I discovered.

I found that the local dog pro could accomplish in minutes that which took me weeks to achieve. For example, I spent many long weeks commanding my German Shepherd pup to sit and moving him into position before he finally started to respond to the command by sitting on his own. I quickly saw that the local pro, on the other hand, could get a dog to respond to the sit command just by taking the animal through a few minutes worth of repetitions.

I soon realized that in part, my results were slower because I was working with a young pup who needed more time to catch on. But more than that, I was using social reinforcers, while the pro was using primary reinforcers, which always produce much faster results.

Primary Reinforcers

Essentially, any sort of reward that has to do with the gratification of physical needs is said to be a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are further differentiated by the fact that no learning has to take place before the subject begins to value them.

For example, eating is a basic physiological need. Therefore, if you are dealing with hungry people, you don't have to convince them that it is worth making a certain amount of effort to acquire some food. And when was the last time that you had to coax a dog into having a bite to eat? Both species already value food because food is fundamental to our physiological functioning.

Here, then, are the three distinguishing features of primary reinforcers:

  1. They are fundamental to some aspect of the subject's physiological functioning.

  2. They are valued even before any learning has taken place.

  3. They are super effective.

Using Food as a Reinforcer

If you give your dog a bit of food immediately after he follows your command to Sit, you will be using primary reinforcement to condition him to sit on command. As a result, your dog's sit on command response will become established much faster than it would if you had rewarded him for sitting with vocal praise alone.

You can see, then, that you are always going to get more bang for your buck if you include primary reinforcers as part of your training regimen. However, since dogs tend to develop health problems from being overweight, just the same as people, using food as a reinforcer can be tricky.

With that in mind, before you start handing out the morsels, be sure to take a minute to read about using food as a reinforcer.

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This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network