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Reliability Deficiency Type B: Yucky Reinforcers

Let's say I was your employer. Product of modern society that you are, you understandably expect to be paid via a paycheck, direct deposit, or...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jul 13th 2010


Let’s say I was your employer. Product of modern society that you are, you understandably expect to be paid via a paycheck, direct deposit, or for some jobs, in cash.

Let’s also assume that I chose to pay you in wampum.

No matter how much I like you, you like me, or you like your job, this situation is just not going to work. Regardless of your feelings about me, your job, or my feelings about you, wampum just isn’t going to pay the mortgage bill, put gas in your car, or food on the table for your family. The reinforcer I’ve decided to dole out, that I think you should work for, is just not commensurate with your own goals and the expectation of reward you have for performing said services. Our feelings about each other, about our working relationship, are absolutely immaterial; the fact of the matter is, I’m paying out with what you deem to be “yucky reinforcers.”

Sometimes, as handlers, we try to bring wampum to the paycheck table. Inevitably, both we and our dogs end up frustrated with the situation. A mutual, achievable goal is on the horizon, but we do not have the reinforcement vehicle necessary to transport us to that goal together.

If I insist on paying in wampum, what happens to our working relationship? You quit. You find another job that may be less inherently rewarding but ends up being more reinforcing – you’ll do something you like less because it pays off in cash instead of wampum.

This happens in dog training as well. Well-intentioned owners bring low-value reinforcement to the behavioral negotiation table. “I want you to work for kibble, a scratch on the butt, or a spoken ‘good girl’.” Your dog responds with her own demands, “I want steak.” You say, “That’s all well and good, but I’m only paying in ‘good girls’.” Your dog responds, “See ya! I’m off to chase that squirrel.”

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

In training any animal, it is important to remember that the learner decides what is punishing and what is reinforcing for a given behavior. I may desperately want my dog to work for kibble or a shred of carrot, but if she wants steak, I’m out of luck.

Effective training is all about manipulating our dogs’ access to desired resources based on behavioral contingencies.

Picture Aladdin’s cave. An entire mountain, hollowed in the middle. Inside the mountain is everything your dog ever wanted – steak, squirrel chases, the opportunity to greet a favorite human or canine friend, a tennis ball, a tug toy, or a sheep to herd. Responding to a cue for a known behavior is the ultimate “open sesame,” it is a green light, the unlocking of a gate to valued opportunity. You are the gatekeeper, and good behavior is the key which unlocks the gate.

My business partner Steve Benjamin always told clients, “your treat has to smell better than that dog’s butt.” Perhaps a bit crude, but nonetheless this is how we have to view distractions in the environment which may compete for our dogs’ attention – how can we pay our dogs to make it “worth it” for them to respond to our cues?

Many dog owners get stuck in a downward spiral, the trap of, “she should listen because she wants to please me.” Some dogs apparently do respond to their handlers’ cues for this reason. I would guess that many who espouse such beliefs have never shared their home with an independent, guardian breeds like my own Chow who could care less about what pleases her owners and is purely hedonistic in her journey through life – Mokie is as Mokie does, wants what she wants, and her only consideration for my views on the subject are contingent upon overcoming resistance on her path toward reinforcement.

Expecting Mokie to work for “what pleases me” would likely lead me to no greater success than I would find in paying you to field a customer service call to one of my more challenging clients in wampum. What if I wanted you to scoop poop at the classroom for a living? Would you ask for more money, because it is a “yucky,” unpleasant, or distasteful job? More than likely, you would expect more compensation and you would have every right to do so.

Similarly, our dogs want to be paid well for difficult jobs, and even for menial tasks, want a reinforcement/reward which is salient and commensurate with the task at hand.

Moral of the story? Don’t be stubborn and don’t be stingy. Part of good training is opening your ears, mind, and heart enough to let your dog train you. If you can slow down, pay attention to your dog’s needs, wants, and desires, and put that information to work for you, your efforts will be rewarded with more focus, attention, and enthusiastic cue responses from your fuzzy best friend.