Day 36 Choice & Choosing: reinforcement

Welcome to Day 36 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!

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Reinforcement

At a glance:

  • providing dogs with a choice of rewards based on their preferences
  • social, cognitive and sensory based enrichment
  • understanding reinforcers, rewards, and things your pet likes is crucial in providing for them, teaching them, loving them
  • get the family involved in this one – while a lot of this enrichment challenge is observation based, there are some simple training exercises that children might enjoy participating in
  • sit back, do some observation; move some beds about or engage in some simple training exercises…most of which require you to just sit about!

What do you need?

  • different rewards…rewards are more than just food and toys

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Enrichment Goals:

  • to provide a choice reinfrocers
  • to encourage dogs to choose and introduce choice into their day to day life
  • to teach the dog that their human will ask for behaviour and will make sure reinforcement is available – this reduces stress by improving predictability and controlability
  • to build that bond between dog and human
  • to learn about learning – this is just another puzzle to your dog…”how do I train the human to make rewards available?!“…it’s all human training, for dogs!

Rewards, reinforcers and things your dog likes are not necessarily the same things. Reinforcers are very specific; access to reinforcers strengthens behaviour. This means that animals will carry out behaviour to access reinforcers; they will work for reinforcers.

Reinforcement is the stuff that ensures you get behaviour you want. But, reinforcers are available to your dog ALL the time so your reinforcers must compete in order for your dog to choose behaviours you want them to do.

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Decker is a compulsive greeter to all who visit. But, although that is clearly very reinforcing behaviour it doesn’t seem to compete with getting a gift of a new treat, a trachea chew. While he clearly likes the idea of saying hello, a novel chew is higher value at the moment. The people will still be there to charm, even when his chew is gone!

Sometimes we can’t do much about our dogs’ exposure to reinforcers. More traditional training approaches have been invested in control and controlling, deprivation, and even in attempting to find stronger reinforcers.
Instead, I prefer to establish choice, and choice in engagement; that’s what Day 34 was all about. Teach the dog that they can choose; they can choose sniffing and they can choose you. By offering choice, you become a better, more likely choice.

Getting behaviour and keeping behaviour is all about reinforcement history. How much value have you built into a behaviour? How healthy is the reinforcement account for that behaviour?

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But, reinforcers are only reinforcing if the dog is willing to work (demonstrate behaviour) to gain access to them. Are the rewards you are using really reinforcing? How would you know?

Choice & Choosing

Throughout their day, dogs must make choices about which behaviours to demonstrate. For the most part, dogs would choose behaviours that we would probably not like so we ‘train’ in the hope that the dog will choose behaviours we prefer. This is why #100daysofenrichment is so important for dogs.

No matter what approach or attitude to teaching your dog you take, we are training the dog to choose our preference rather than theirs. We teach dogs to be less dog, so we can live with them. Getting to be more dog is the central tenet of #100daysofenrichment!

Reinforcing behaviours makes them happen more often so the dog is more likely to choose behaviours with a good reinforcement history. Punishing behaviours makes them happen less often so dogs learn to avoid choosing those behaviours.

Our dogs are learning to train their environment, including us humans. How easily trained are you?
Does your dog know how to get you to provide things he likes? Do you make it really easy for him to do that? He chooses behaviours that get you producing reinforcers.

Why we want to maximise reinforcement based approaches is so that our dog isn’t learning to avoid situations that produce punishers because them might include avoiding us.
I want dogs to enjoy choosing behaviours I like…it’s the least I can do, given they might actually prefer to do something else.

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Life can’t offer free or even abundant choice; too much choice isn’t beneficial at all! But, where we can, I believe we owe it to dogs, who get so little choice about everything in their lives, to allow them to make some choices, learn that their behaviour makes a difference, and get to be more dog.

We have many Choice & Choosing challenges over the 100 days so this will be a theme you will visit throughout.

I have battled with and rambled on about choice in dog training before and continue to investigate the best ways to empower pets and other animals with whom we are in contact.
Susan Friedman has been talking about choice in animal teaching forever; choice is a primary reinforcer, she teaches, and that means that animals will naturally seek out situations where choice is available. If it’s evolved as a primary reinforcer (nature selects for this tendency) it’s pretty vitally important to animals, just as food, water, shelter and sex are.

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • think about the sorts of decisions your dog has to make in living in the human world; what are they basing those decisions on (what’s reinforcing the chosen option, what’s punishing the rejected options?)
  • to make observations about reinforcers, you first need to be able to identify them.
    Start by watching your dog’s behaviour. Ask what they are getting out of that behaviour? What’s the thing likely causing them to repeat that behaviour? They’re  the reinforcers.
  • observe the decisions your pet makes about reinforcers – what behaviours do they choose?
  • based on those observations, how can we provide them with better choices for rewards?
  • we presume we are using rewards that reinforce behaviour but if you have been along this journey with us for any length of time, you are beginning to understand that what we primates think our dogs should enjoy, is often not what dogs really want at all

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

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Applications of choice in reinforcement:

Whether you never intentionally reinforce (i.e. train) your dog’s behaviour, they will still learn and will still carry out behaviour that works to gain access to reinforcers. The environment is always reinforcing (and punishing) behaviour.

Animals have evolved to behave. And behaviour has evolved to allow animals gain control over what happens to them (i.e. to gain access to things we want, and avoid exposure to things we don’t).

Your pets will need behaviours to survive, and to survive in the human world. Generally, these are behaviours that are within the animal’s natural range, but they might just need them in specific conditions, such as when something in the environment tells them they will need this behaviour.
The environment tells the animal they need a behaviour, and doing that behaviour will result in access to reinforcers or help them avoid punishers.

When those behaviours are not within their natural range, they might need a little more guidance and teaching.

Rather than thinking how we make our dogs do a certain behaviour, instead, think how you can set up the environment so your dog chooses to do behaviour.
Rather than thinking how we stop a behaviour we don’t like, instead, think how you can set up the environment so your dog chooses to do behaviour you prefer.

To teach, you must understand reinforcement. Reinforcers are in the eye of the beholder; that means your individual dog, in a specific circumstance, decides what is reinforcing or not. And we can only conclude that something is reinforcing, if behaviour is strengthened.

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Teaching animals how to use behaviour to gain access to reinforcement gives them control over what happens to them. Training through choice is about giving them control, rather than us taking control.

Dogs who know their choices count, can use behaviour to ask for relief, they can ask for things they need.
They don’t need to badger and they don’t need to aggress. Choices allow dogs to navigate the human world with confidence because they can control what happens to them.
That’s what appropriate choice does – it busts stress and boosts confidence.

Enrichment Options

We often presume that our pets experience a good standard of welfare because they live a life similar to ours, in the human world. This is especially the case for pet dogs.

But, what would our dogs choose, if they had the choice?

What gets them going? What drives their behaviour?

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I have no doubt, if you are joining in on our project, you are doing a wonderful job at providing the best dog-life for your dog.
We can’t possibly offer our dogs all the choices, or indeed many options they would prefer, despite our best intentions. But we can certainly offer them better choices – two crappy options are no better than no choice at all.

So, today, our mission is to find our dogs better choices by asking them. Giving them the option to choose, and making sure their choices are meaningful. Their behaviour matters. Today, we ask the dog.

Enrichment Options

Step 1: What reinforcers are reinforcing?

1.1 List the things that your dog will work for. 

I want you to think carefully about this. Reinforcers are behaviours. Instead of a reinforcer being the treat, it’s actually eating the treat. Instead of a reinforcer being a tennis ball, it’s actually the game that’s played with the tennis ball.

Behaviour reinforces behaviour.

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Decker tugs to get to shake the Jolly ball. Behaviour reinforces behaviour. 

You don’t have to list things that are for training, you can list anything that your dog will demonstrate behaviour in order to gain access. These behaviours might even be unwanted by you…

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I haven’t found anything that is more reinforcing for Decker’s behaviour than access to swimming. Nothing. A bitch in heat…nah…SWIMMING! (True story)
Swimming is reinforcing and therefore might, in some contexts, be considered a distraction. Distractions are reinforcers that are higher ranking than what you have to offer.
That’s why understanding this is important as is our work on teaching our dogs to choose engagement (Day 34).

1.2 Rank the reinforcers.

Put them in order of higher value to lower value.

What are the things that make your dog will go bonkers for?
What’s more distracting?
What are the things that your dog is willing to carry out only simple behaviours in low-distraction situations?

In the clip above, shaking the Jolly ball is higher in value to tugging.

1.3 Reinforcement is contextual

When I asked you to do 1.2, you might have found yourself saying that a particular reinforcer is higher or lower in value, dependent on the situation in which it’s available or presented.

Run through your ranking list. In which situations are the higher and lower value more or less reinforcing?

Your dog might go ga-ga for chicken…but not when there are squirrels within 50 metres, for example.

Step 2 Evaluate reinforcement

2.1 Preference tests

Now, we don’t have to get too scientific here, but let’s test your conclusions about your dog’s reinforcement ranking.

  • set up with two potential reinforcers
  • ask your dog for a simple behaviour
  • release them to get the reinforcer they choose
  • remove the other option quickly, before they can get to it
  • switch the position of each reinforcer each time so that there isn’t a side or position bias misleading our results
  • record multiple trials

One of Decker’s preference tests: kibble, meaty treats, pepperoni, hollee roller tug, Jolly Ball:

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Test the different reinforcers in different situations. Remember to consider the power of ‘distractions’ too.

2.2 What’s really reinforcing about reinforcement?

The behaviours that are reinforcing are what’s reinforcing, but which behaviours really act as the reinforcement for your dog.

  • Eating isn’t just eating. Tossing food to be caught, rolling it along the floor to be chased, or handing it straight into the dog’s mouth are all very different in terms of behaviours that may act as reinforcement.
    Playing Fun with Food games may reveal which food-related behaviours are more reinforcing for your dog in different situations.
  • Sniffing, we talk a lot about, and it’s clearly a reinforcing behaviour. But sniffing isn’t just sniffing. Sniffing is affected by temperature, humidity, time of day, the available smells, the weather; each making the activity more or less reinforcing.
    Check out Sniffing Saturdays for more on the sensory enrichment available on sniffathons and adventures.
  • Play with a toy might involve many different reinforcing behaviours. Maybe your dog likes to chase a ball, maybe he likes to bite a rubber toy, maybe he likes to lie down and dissect the toy, maybe he likes to squeeze it in his mouth.

(Follows videos with squeaky toys squeaking….adjust volume accordingly)

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Decker wants to squeeze/bite/squeak the tennis ball but also wants to chase it and catch it and bite it.

Sometimes he just wants to bite it and squeak it, before dissecting it:

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Sometimes he wants to do this with an over-inflated football:

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And if it’s a toy on a rope, he likes to carry it, wiggling the toy at the end, and catching it.

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Each item and activity allows the dog choose from a range of reinforcing behaviours. This an important part of enrichment – providing the animal with access to a range of potential activities and then letting them find fun and reinforcing ways of interacting with their world.
I won’t bore you with all of the videos of Decker interacting with his world, seeking enrichment, trying out new behaviours, rehearsing established reinforcing activities.

Now it’s your turn with your pet – carefully look at his or her interactions with their world and evaluate the value of reinforcing activities.

What behaviours is your pet carrying out? What part of reinforcement is reinforcing?

Step 3 What dogs want

Letting animals choose sounds straight forward. But assessing whether the animal is actually making a choice or being affected by some other variable is tricky to narrow down.

Present choices

Make sure that you provide choices where it’s possible; we’ve talked about providing a choice of bedding, for example.

While deconstructed-dog-food games provide different sensory pay-offs, it might also help us assessing and providing choice.

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Have a range of toys available and, for play-time, allow your dog to choose the toy. It’s their play-time, after all!
We just need to present the options and allow the dog to choose. If you have done diligent observation, you might be able to predict your dog’s choices in different situations.

Provide your dog with access to lots of different games, so he has a range from which to choose and play-time is healthier and happier.

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Allowing your dog to choose the toy, allows them to choose the game.

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Reinforcer value may be affected by reinforcement history, novelty and deprivation, so it’s difficult to tell, just from these little tests, that the dog is actually making a considered choice about whether he would like to play a particular game.

I have tried to be consistent in these contexts, that a particular toy means a particular game will happen, but sometimes he has other ideas. Choice.

I have tried to formalise it by him carrying out specific behaviours or go to specific stations/targets for particular games but again this may be affected by various other effects, that can be difficult to narrow down.

I know which toy he will pick in each context…well, in the first test, he technically chooses both so…

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This is the latest one we are working on. He picks the toy and I offer two options for games; in this case, to roll along the floor for chasing or to toss in the air for catching.

He gets the game in this context and tests the available games at the start.

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You will also see him ask me to play the gimme-dat-monster and chase him. To facilitate choice, we have lots of cues (from him to me, and from me to him) to ask.

I ask what game he wants and he lets me know. Well, he really offers a behaviour which happens to get him the result he wants (the behaviour is reinforced) and this has been clear, because we have a good foundation of communication to build upon.

Sometimes he wants me to throw, sometimes he wants me to tug. I ask and listen to his response. That’s the deal. That’s how you get clear cut communication, improving welfare and confidence. Choice is powerful.

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Choose your enrichment

The animal gets to decide if they participate, what they do, how they participate and how much they engage. Enrichment provides choice.

Your job is to make sure they are safe to choose and that their choices are safe.

In this clip, Decker has a ball stuffed with Husky hair that we use in Sniffaris for olfactory enrichment. Or certainly, we intend that the dog will find it enriching from an olfactory point of view but as you can see, Decker comes up with all sorts of other forms of entertainment!

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While Billie was originally working her way through this brain-teaser puzzle, there are food rewards hidden in there and she does engage in sniffing and hunting for them, she also finds chasing the loose balls as just as if not more entertaining, as shown in the following clip.

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We can stand back and allow the dog to choose their own enrichment, their own route to solving the puzzles, the behaviours that reinforce.

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!

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