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Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is something in dog training that very few people discuss, yet it is essential if you want to achieve reliability with your dog.

Most people are familiar with rewarding good behaviors while either ignoring or correcting bad behaviors. However, very few people talk about using intermittent reinforcement to increase a dog’s drive and desire to listen, and even fewer people discuss how intermittent reinforcement can be detrimental regarding bad behaviors if left unchecked.

The idea behind intermittent reinforcement simply means to only give the dog rewards periodically for displaying good behaviors rather than giving them a reward every time they display those behaviors.

Many people may be confused by this as they have been told to always praise and reward good behaviors and to do so constantly. This is true, but only when teaching the dog new commands or trying to change a behavior in the dog.

“The chemicals that are released in the dog’s brain are the same chemicals that humans experience when they go to a casino, this chemical is dopamine.”

This is called classical conditioning and is used in almost every part of dog training. Once a behavior or command has been classically conditioned with the dog then treats can be periodically withheld when the dog performs the desired behaviors.  Strangely enough, this makes the dog try to do the behavior with more enthusiasm than if it were to always get a reward.

So, why does uncertainty make a dog try harder to get a reward? The answer is in the chemicals that are released in the dog’s brain when they have the possibility of a reward, but no guarantee.

The chemicals that are released in the dog’s brain are the same chemicals that humans experience when they go to a casino, this chemical is dopamine. The thrill of potentially winning a jackpot releases enormous amounts of dopamine and keeps people in the game and trying harder and harder.

Even though people know that the chances of them winning big are slim, they continue because of the thrill that is accompanied by the thought of possibly getting a reward.

This is not solely seen in the casino but in other aspects of human life. For example, hunters continue to hunt all throughout hunting season and may only get the opportunity to shoot a deer once a month, but the thrill of the possibility keeps them coming back each day of the season to hunt.

Once a dog has been classically conditioned to receive rewards for doing good behaviors, then the trainer can begin to withdraw treats and practice intermittent reinforcement. This should be done gradually so that the dog does not lose motivation to perform those behaviors.

Occasionally, a high value reward such as a handful of tasty treats or a dog’s favorite toy can be given as a “jackpot” type reward. This element of surprise possibility of getting nothing, a treat, or a jackpot will keep the dog more engaged with the owner.

“This is one of the reasons why consistency in dog training is so important in order to see any changes in a dog’s behavior.”

It is important to also utilize markers so that you can still communicate with the dog when they do a desirable behavior even though you are not actually giving them a reward.

Intermittent reinforcement can be a wonderful tool in order to build drive and motivation in a dog; however, it can also work against you if you are not careful in its use. When dealing with bad behaviors that you may want to eliminate in the dog, such as a dog bolting through a doorway, intermittent reinforcement can work against you.

If you stop the dog from bolting through the doorway nine times out of ten but let them bolt through the doorway on the tenth attempt, you will be intermittently reinforcing that behavior.

This is one of the reasons why consistency in dog training is so important in order to see any changes in a dog’s behavior. When trying to develop a plan to change bad behaviors into good behaviors, you need to ensure that the dog is never reinforced for a bad behavior, as the intermittent reinforcement will only drive the dog to continue that behavior more often in the future.

There are many instances in dog training where in order to stop the dog from being rewarded for bad behavior, a correction needs to be applied instead.

A correction is anything that stops or corrects the dog’s bad behavior in order to reward the dog for a good behavior. This could be as simple as shutting the door when the dog attempts to bolt on through it, thus denying them access to the outside.

Utilizing corrections can be a valuable tool in order to deny dogs any rewards for bad behaviors. If a correction is not utilized and the dog is intermittently rewarded, then that behavior will inevitably continue.

Intermittent reinforcement can be a great tool or your worst nightmare depending on when it is being applied. As a dog owner, you should be vigilant in order to stop the dog from being intermittently rewarded at the wrong times for undesirable behaviors.

Understanding and utilizing this method can be a fun and exciting way to challenge yourself and your dog to reach new levels in your training journey. The value of intermittent reinforcement should never be underestimated.

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