The Vending Machine

When your pet is first learning a new behavior, she should be rewarded every single time she does the behavior. Think of a vending machine. Every time you push the button you get a reward. This level of consistency and frequency helps our dogs efficiently learn which behavior is earning them the reward. This is what we call a continuous reinforcement schedule.

Don’t cut your dog off cold turkey!

Once again using the example of the vending machine, day after day it delivers a continuous reinforcement. However, one day you put in your money, push the button and nothing happens. Each consecutive day thereafter, you try to push the button and get your snack from this vending machine. It continues to take your money, and produce zero snacks. It is safe to say that you will stop putting money in the machine and your button pushing behavior will cease. The same is true for our dog’s which is why it is important to switch to “the slot machine” methodology after a behavior is fluent.

The Slot Machine

Once your dog is fluent in a new behavior it is important to begin the process of randomizing their reward schedule. Think of a slot machine. Sometimes you win $500 at this slot machine. Sometimes you win $0, sometimes you win $20 and occasionally you hit the jackpot. However, you can’t predict exactly what kind of “win” you will have so you continue putting coins into the machine and pulling the lever. This is what we call an intermittent, random or variable reinforcement schedule. By switching to a random reinforcement schedule we can effectively elicit a response from the dog whether she sees or smells food, simply because sometimes the behavior produces awesome results. This chance to win is enough to turn your dog into a gambler.

How to make the switch!

At first, you may need to reward your dog with a treat three times out of four, then half the time, then a third of the time and so forth, until you’re only rewarding her occasionally with a treat. Choose to reward the best behaviors with a treat, and the lack-luster ones with praise only. Do make sure your dog can’t predict the reward pattern or they will only offer the behavior when they know a treat is coming. Done properly, this variable schedule of reinforcement will insure that she doesn’t catch on. Your pet will effectively learn that if she keeps responding, eventually she’ll get what she wants.

Is my dog ready?

If your dog can perform the “known” behavior ten times in a row, in a variety of different environments, without the performance of the behavior regressing, then your dog is most likely ready to be switched to a random reinforcement schedule for that behavior. However, keep in mind that dogs are not good at generalizing, and any time we take our dogs into a novel environment we may have to switch back to a continuous reinforcement schedule until they become fluent in that new environment. The more distractions and challenges there are, the harder it is for our dogs to focus. In these situations it is our job to help them relearn the skill with these distractions present. Rarely will they be able to master this without our gentle guidance.

Other ways to wean your dog off treats

One of the best ways to teach your dog to perform behaviors whether or not a treat is present is to reward your dog with “life rewards.” A life reward is anything that requires human thumbs in order to gain access. Access to their environment, getting their dinner put down, getting a ball thrown or their leash put on are all fantastic day-to-day opportunities for training. Below are a few more examples of “life rewards.” Teach your dog to follow through with cues in order to gain access to these special “events” in their day.

  • Ask your dog to “sit” before putting on their leash.
  • Ask your dog for a “down” before letting them into the backyard.
  • Ask your dog to “wait” before letting them gobble down their dinner.
  • Teach your dog to “stay” while you get ready for their walk.
  • Ask for different behaviors in exchange for having their ball thrown.
  • Teach them to “wait” to get in and out of the car.
  • Require them to walk with a loose leash to the gate of the dog park.

In a nutshell

By understanding reinforcement, you can see that you’re not forever bound to carry treats in your pocket. Your pet will soon be working for your verbal praise, because you have a great relationship and he knows that, occasionally, he’ll get a treat or a brief game of catch too! Finally, if your dog is really struggling there is no harm in temporarily switching back to a continuous reinforcement schedule. You can always begin to re-introduce the “slot machine” methodology again later, after your dog has had more practice.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions.

Call our free pet behavior help line at (503) 416-2983.