Reinforcers are dynamic

Reinforcers are Dynamic


I do not really like chocolate, I mean, I’ll eat it occasionally and certainly have a few candies that I enjoy that contain chocolate but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get some.  If someone were to use chocolate as a reinforcer for me, they would probably not get a very high rate of success because I don’t really like chocolate.  I REALLY dislike Mounds candybars–I absolutely HATE them–there are many people who love these candies but even just thinking about them I’m making a “yucky” face.  If someone who loves Mounds tried to use them as reinforcers, they would probably very quickly teach me to NOT do the behavior they wanted (if every time I “sat” they “rewarded” me with a Mounds, I would stop sitting pretty quickly to avoid the Mounds).  I choose what is reinforcing to me and what I find reinforcing is not necessarily the same thing that others THINK is reinforcing to me.

It’s incredibly important to remember that dogs choose what is reinforcing to them, not the human handlers.  Just because you want to use play as a reinforcer doesn’t mean your dog finds it terribly reinforcing.  It’s also important to remember that what your dog finds reinforcing is not necessarily static or stable.   My dogs love to go swimming and I certainly use access to the pond as a reinforcer but you can be sure that right now, in the freezing cold of winter, they would NOT find going for a swim terribly reinforcing.

Food is always reinforcing for my dogs–even if they just ate a huge meal–but it is not always the most reinforcing thing for them.  I generally think I’m pretty creative with my reinforcers, I use access to the yard, play, barking, releasing to go sniff, and jumping up/getting excited as reinforcers for behaviors all the time (when situationally appropriate–releasing to go sniff in the house is not terribly reinforcing but it IS while at a park).  I recently started experimenting with building more enthusiasm with Rio for getting into heel position.

So, during times he is most aroused (when I come home or when he’s about to go outside), I have been cuing him to get into heel, stay in heel, or “switch” (to move from heel to my right side) and then releasing him to jump up on to me or go run.  He’s been getting more and more enthusiastic with his getting into heel and it is building an extremely high value for that behavior (flipping into heel is starting to become a default behavior).  Since ‘heel’ predicts a very high value reward (going outside, being allowed to jump up on me and bark, or being released to run/chase), he’s doing it with tons of intensity and passion.  I’ve been really excited to see his excitement level change about heel position–it’s really quite fun!

HarryI thought I was being creative with Rio’s reward until I picked up a few days of dog-walking for one of my training students.  Harry is a very lovable doodle boy who marks like crazy on walks.  He will pull toward every tree, shrug, mailbox, fire hydrant, curb, or building wall to pee.  He is also a boy who doesn’t always respond to known behaviors while outside.  The first walk with him (and his brother Albus) was a challenge–he was pulling all over the place to pee on things.  He would be walking nicely then suddenly yank toward some vertical object to pee on.


It was after this first walk that I decided to use permission to mark as a reward for responding to a cue.  So the following walk, every time Harry looked interested in peeing on something (pulling toward it), I stopped and cued him to sit.  The first 3 attempts it took a few minutes to get his attention and then to get him to sit.  It was a test of patience, persistence, and looking crazy in the middle of down town making all sorts of noises to get his attention.  When he finally responded, I released him to pee on the object.  By the end of the walk, he was responding much more rapidly and wasn’t yanking me around to pee on things as much.   The next day’s walk was even easier–he was giving better attention and responding to cues much more quickly to earn the reward of marking.  He even responded to a few ‘down’ cues to earn the chance to mark.  It was amazing how fast his behavior changed using marking as a reward–within 4 walks, he was like a completely different dog.  Marking was such a high value reward that it was a fast transformation.

An added bonus to improved reliability of responding to behavior was that on the last walk, he didn’t even pull to mark things.  I do not know if this was a result of the pulling to mark things no longer being effective or if he learned that I would give him opportunities to mark or what but it was a great side effect.

You have to remember that what YOU think is reinforcing for your dog is not always actually reinforcing to them.  Use what they want to your advantage as a reinforcer and be creative with what you use as rewards!  I cannot emphasize this enough–it will take your training to the next level!


  1. I’m so proud of my boy!! We’ll definitely keep using this reinforcer. Thanks, Tena!

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