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  • Writer's pictureKrisztina Harasztosi

Are So-Called Positive Trainers Just Cookie Pushers?

Ever heard the term "cookie pusher" thrown around when talking about positive trainers? Let’s break it down with a bit of wit and wisdom.

First off, I prefer to call myself an ethical trainer—fear-free, force-free, and aversive-free—rather than just a "positive" trainer. Yes, I use positive reward methods to teach dogs, but it's not always about food. So, what exactly does this mean?

Do I Use Food Rewards?

Absolutely! I always have treats with me when I train dogs, or just walk my own dog. But do I reward every good behavior with food? No, I don't.

What is a Reward?

Reward and Reinforcement: Definitions and Differences

Both rewards and reinforcement are crucial concepts in positive reinforcement dog training and behavioral psychology. While they are related, they are not synonymous.

Reward: A reward, in the context of dog training, is typically an item or experience given to a dog after they perform a desired behavior. Rewards can include treats, praise, toys, or any activity the dog enjoys. Example: Giving a dog a treat after they sit on cue.

Reinforcement: Reinforcement involves any consequence that strengthens or increases the likelihood of a behavior. In positive reinforcement training, we focus on adding something pleasant or desirable to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Example: Giving a dog a treat (positive reinforcement) for sitting increases the likelihood that the dog will sit again in the future.

Krisztina Harasztosi certified trainer working with rescue dog
Krisztina Harasztosi training Kiya, husky mix

The Non-Food Reward

Imagine you’re at the beach and your black Lab brings you a stick, barking for you to throw it. If you do, fetching becomes the reward. Here, your dog has trained you! Instead, teach your dog to be quiet before fetching the stick. This way you use an activity “fetching” to reward calm behavior. In this case you were also using the Premack Principle (see below) and reinforced a less likely behavior with a more likely behavior. Smart, right?!

The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle, named after psychologist David Premack, is a concept in behavioral psychology that can be particularly useful in dog training. It states that a more probable or preferred behavior can be used as a reinforcer for a less probable or less preferred behavior. Essentially, it means that an animal (or person) will perform a less desirable activity to gain access to a more desirable activity.

Applying the Premack Principle in Dog Training:

  1. Identifying Preferences: Determine what activities or behaviors your dog finds most enjoyable or rewarding. These can vary from dog to dog but often include things like playing with toys, running, eating treats, or interacting with other dogs.

  2. Using Preferred Behaviors as Rewards: Use the high-probability behaviors as rewards for performing the low-probability behaviors. For example, if your dog loves to run and play outside (high-probability behavior), you can use this as a reward for sitting calmly at the door (low-probability behavior).

  3. Building Associations: By consistently pairing a less preferred behavior with a highly preferred reward, you can increase the likelihood that the less preferred behavior will be performed in the future. For example, if your dog knows that sitting quietly will result in being allowed to play fetch, they are more likely to sit quietly when asked.

Primary vs. Secondary Rewards

  • Primary Rewards: Essential (food, water, shelter).

  • Secondary Rewards: Need to be conditioned with primary rewards (like praise or a clicker).

Markers and Rewards

A marker, like a clicker or a consistent verbal cue ("YES"), marks the exact moment your dog does the right behavior. Always follow the marker with a reward, usually food at the beginning. Using verbal markers is easy, it makes your training style more consistent and your dog will learn faster.

Dog trainer and behavior consultant working with reactive dog
Krisztina Harasztosi and Willow

Reward vs. Lure

A reward follows a behavior. If you have food in your hand, it's a lure, not a reward. In training, we aim to switch from luring to rewarding as quickly as possible.

Use luring when teaching new behaviors, encouraging movement, building confidence in your dog or in case of emergency, when you need to move your dog out of the situation quickly. Avoid over-reliance on lures, reinforcing inappropriate behaviors. Fade the lure gradually, introduce a cue for the behavior, and consistently reinforce the behavior to strengthen it.

Training Schedules

When starting out, it's essential to use continuous reinforcement, meaning you reward every correct behavior. Think of yourself as a vending machine: every time your dog performs the desired behavior, they get a treat. This helps establish a clear connection between the behavior and the reward, making it easier for your dog to understand what is expected of them.

However, as your dog becomes more proficient, it's important to shift to a variable reinforcement schedule. This is akin to a slot machine: your dog never knows when the next reward will come. By rewarding behaviors unpredictably, you maintain your dog's interest and motivation. This technique not only keeps your dog engaged but also strengthens the behavior, making it more reliable and resilient over time.

Here are some common reinforcement schedules to consider:

  1. Fixed Ratio Schedule: Reward after a set number of correct responses (e.g., every third sit).

  2. Variable Ratio Schedule: Reward after a random number of correct responses (e.g., after two sits, then five sits, then three sits). This is similar to the slot machine method and is very effective in maintaining strong behaviors.

  3. Fixed Interval Schedule: Reward the first correct response after a set amount of time (e.g., the first sit after every minute).

  4. Variable Interval Schedule: Reward the first correct response after varying amounts of time (e.g., the first sit after one minute, then three minutes, then two minutes).

This unpredictability can lead to more enthusiastic and persistent responses from your dog. Transitioning through these schedules strategically ensures that your dog remains motivated and that the behaviors you’re teaching become well-established and reliable, even in the absence of constant rewards.  

Homework! Finding the Right Rewards 

To identify what motivates your dog, list 10 activities and rank them from low to high rewarding. Figure which of these activities can be paired with something you want from your dog. And use them as reinforcers, rewards!

Wrapping Up

While luring has its place, it’s not the same as rewarding. Aim to switch to rewards as soon as possible. Use different reinforcement schedules for various tasks and situations to keep your dog engaged and responsive.

So, are positive trainers just cookie pushers? Not quite. We're all about using what motivates your dog—whether it's food, toys, play, or praise—to build a happy, well-behaved companion.

Happy training!  

Recommended Reading and Resources

  1. "Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training" by Karen Pryor Link to Book

  2. "The Power of Positive Dog Training" by Pat Miller Link to Book

  3. "Training Your Dog the Humane Way: Simple Teaching Tips for Resolving Problem Behaviors and Raising a Happy Dog" by Alana Stevenson Link to Book

  4. "Principles of Animal Behavior" by Lee Alan Dugat Link to Book

  5. "The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World" by Susan M. Schneider Link to Book

  6. "Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures" by Raymond G. Miltenberger Link to Book

  7. David Premack's Original Research Papers- Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavior laws: I. Positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66(4), 219-233. Link

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