Training With Intermittent Reinforcement Is Like Gambling

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Do your pets play the slot machine?

Intermittent reinforcement is like a slot machineThat may sound like a silly question but if I were to ask you whether you always stood like a tree when your dog jumps on you and your answer is, “Well, sometimes it is okay,” then that is exactly what game your dog is playing.

Let me explain.

Always in life, animals learn by the consequences of their actions – sometimes they behave to move away from something negative and sometimes they behave to move toward something of value. The most humane way to set our pets up for success is by teaching them what we want them to do more of by making the choice to do that behavior of high value.

Taking that a step further, scientific research has shown that different reinforcement schedules result in very different patterns of behavior.

The two main categories of reinforcement are continuous (meaning a treat or other reinforcement is given immediately after EVERY occurrence of the target behavior) and intermittent (meaning a treat or other reinforcement is only given SOMETIMES after the target behavior).

Continuous reinforcement is the best to use when you are teaching a new behavior or increasing the strength or rate of a behavior because it clearly communicates exactly what the behavior is you are looking for. And, given a choice, animals tend to do the behavior that results in the highest value reinforcement.

Once a behavior is learned, the unpredictability of intermittent reinforcement makes that behavior strong and resilient. It can be absolutely addicting as those who have ever played golf or the slot machine know.

When a dog sleeps on the heat register for the occasional warm air bursts or bumps your leg at the dinner table because you may give in and offer a treat, he is under the spell of intermittent reinforcement.

At the extreme end of this spectrum is the extinction schedule where you withhold reinforcement completely from a maintained behavior. But that approach is far from easy. After all, it is pretty difficult to ignore a bird who is screaming or a dog who is barking or scratching you. What happens if you try? The animal will increase the level of his behavior intensity to get that reinforcement. And…if you give in and offer attention to that higher level behavior, then you have just taught your pet it is that higher intensity behavior that gets the greatest reinforcement.

This is why having a plan with a goal of ‘teaching a wanted behavior’ while not giving value to the unwanted behavior is not only more effective, it is more humane too.

So, if you want to set yourself, your pet and your relationship up for success, leave the slot machine in the casino. And just focus on teaching with clarity.

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