Instructor: Chrissi Schranz
Starting from the assumption that reinforcers are behaviors rather than things, and can be trained, put on (marker) cue, proofed, and generalized like any other behavior, we will explore a large variety of traditional and nontraditional rewards for your dog: food and play, chasing squirrels, licking the dishes in the dishwasher, biting the garden hose, swimming, running out the door …
Rather than just slapping on a random reinforcer, we’ll look into the state of mind it comes with, and how it affects the behavior you are rewarding: do you want action, relaxation, or calm concentration? Your choice of reinforcement matters and you will learn to make smart choices for your dog in different situations. We start with an in-depth exploration of the choice, delivery method and reward location for classic reinforcers such as food and toys, and then explore a wide array of nontraditional reinforcers.
Why should you care about expanding your reinforcement repertoire? Non-traditional reinforcers …
- help you get traditional reinforcers off your body
- lend themselves to practicing impulse control (yes, you’ll get to chase that bird - but I’d like you to do something for me first!)
- are potent rewards for life skills (Keep four paws on the floor, and you’ll get to greet your friend!)
- are lots of fun to experiment with.
This is a concept class - you can use it as a framework to practice life skills as well as sports skills of any level.
There are no scheduled sessions for this class at this time. We update our schedule frequently, so please subscribe to our mailing list for notifications.
Registration will begin at 9:30 AM Pacific Time.
Enrollment limits: Gold: 12 students, Silver: 25 students, Bronze: unlimited.
Gold Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to post questions and videos to the course forums. Students will receive instructor feedback on written and video assignments.
Silver Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to participate in the discussion forum. Students may ask GENERAL questions about course materials and may submit two, one-minute videos for instructor feedback. Any questions specific to your dog MUST be accompanied by a video.
Bronze Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to read all questions and answers posted in the class forums. Students will not post questions or submit written or video assignments.
For more details, refund policies, and answers to commonly asked questions see our FAQ page.
1. What’s a reinforcer, anyways?
2. Reinforcement as Behavior: Train, Cue, Proof, Generalize
3. Reinforcers are Vehicles for Emotions
4. Reward Placement and Marker Words
5. The Classics: 101 Things to Do with A Cookie
6. The Classics: 101 Things to Do with A Toy
7. Switching Back and Forth Between Food and Toys
8. N-T-D Rewards Around Your House and Yard: Dishwashers, Garden Hoses, and Other Fun Things
9. Thresholds: Reinforce as You Go
10. Natural Behaviors As Reinforcers: Digging, Swimming, Chasing …
11. Social Rewards
NATURAL BEHAVIORS AS REINFORCERS
What's a Natural Behavior?
When I say “natural behavior,” I mean one of your dog’s hobbies - one of the things she likes to do and intrinsically enjoys, even if you never consciously taught it to her. Some natural behaviors are shared by most dogs - most intact male dogs enjoy sniffing females in heat; and most dogs love chasing small critters. Other natural behaviors are breed-specific - an example would be herding sheep, or biting (toys and bite sleeves). Others yet are individual predilections your dog might have - maybe she likes to dig holes or swim in lakes!
While breeds and lines of dogs usually share a number of traits, every dog is different, and it’s important to look at your individual dog’s natural behaviors to decide which ones you might be able to harness as a reinforcer. If your dog had an online dating profile, what would their list of hobbies look like?
If you let her go about her day without intervening, where would she go? Would she hit the park to chase squirrels, or would she unleash her landscaping ambitions on your vegetable garden? Would he take a lazy stroll around the neighborhood and take his time sniffing all the spots the girl next door has peed?
Can natural behaviors be reinforcers?
Yes. In theory, anything your dog likes to do can be used to reinforce something else.
Natural behaviors are a little less practical to use than classical reinforcers such as food and toys because they only work in specific situations. For example, you can’t use a squirrel to reinforce your dog in your living room, and you probably can’t use a herd of sheep to reward your Kelpie after a beautiful heeling pattern. And sniffing is only interesting when the smell is extraordinarily enticing - such as a deer track or a girl in heat.
However, via the Premack Principle, any less likely behavior that you insert right before a natural (more likely) behavior will get reinforced and start taking on more and more value. Natural behaviors are among the strongest reinforcers there are, which makes it worthwhile to include them in your training.
The perks of rewarding your dog with natural behaviors
While natural behaviors are less flexible and tangible than classic rewards, you can absolutely take advantage of them to strengthen a behavior you’re currently working on. They can also help you reduce classic rewards for well-known skills, and get food and toys off your body. Furthermore, most natural reinforcers are also very tempting distractions. If you manage to keep your dog’s attention on you before rewarding her with her natural temptations, you kill two birds with one stone: proofing against distractions, and rewarding your dog well!
Here's how it works in practice:
1. Identify the Behavior
Think about your dog. What are her hobbies? Once you have identified a natural behavior you would like to use as a reward, pay close attention to when and where your dog displays it.
For Grit, possible natural behaviors I could use as reinforcers include chasing birds, and jumping into the pool. For Pirate, a former foster dog of mine, digging for mice and moles was a perfect reinforcer. For Game and Phoebe, playing with other dogs is high on the list of natural motivators. I also know a number of boy dogs for whom the opportunity to sniff a spot the girl next door just peed is a dream come true. All these things can be used as reinforcers - you just need to know how!
2. Name the Behavior
When you are 80% sure your dog is about to engage in the natural behavior you would like to use as a reinforcer, name the behavior: say the word that will become the marker cue for this natural behavior right before the behavior happens.
For example, you could say “Dig!” when you get to the spot at the beach where your dog likes to dig holes. Say your new cue right before your dog is about to engage in the behavior. Repeat this several times to establish a connection between the behavior (e.g. digging) and its name (“Dig!”). Don’t use the behavior as a reinforcer just yet - you need to put it on (marker) cue first.
Here, I’m naming the behavior of chasing birds. The marker cue will be “Birds!”:
Depending on the behavior you want to use as a reinforcer, you can either just capture it when it happens in real life, or set up a training scenario in advance.
For example, if you want to attach a cue to saying hi to people or playing with another dog (see lecture “Social Rewards”), organize a play date with a helper, and send your dog off to “Go play!” with your new marker cue! If you want to use sniffing girl pee as a reward, ask a friend whose female is in heat to collect a little bit of her dog’s urine on a cotton pad. You can then place it in a strategic location in order to name the behavior of sniffing it. (Store your cotton pads out of your dog’s reach in an airtight container when you aren’t using them, in the same way that you would store nosework supplies.)
Stay at the “naming” step until you are sure your dog knows what the new term refers to. You can test her understanding by saying the new word when your dog hasn’t yet seen the natural reward you want to present her with. Does she get excited and start looking around when she hears you say the new marker cue? Then you know she has made the connection!
3. Use it as a reinforcer
Once your dog knows the meaning of the new marker cue, go ahead and use it in training! Natural behaviors work great for practicing and proofing well-known behaviors, but are less suitable for training something new. They aren’t a replacement for food or toys, but can expand your reinforcement toolbox!
Ask your dog to do something for you, and mark with the new marker cue (which is the cue for your dog to engage in the natural behavior).
Chasing birds as a reward for heeling:
Note that the birds on the field are both a distraction and a reinforcer: Grit knows they are here. She has learned that cooperating with me will get her what she wants - to chase the birds! Setting up training sessions like this helps with proofing and strongly reinforces the behavior you are working on.
Here’s an example of Phoebe on a walk in the field where I know she loves to dig. I’ve named the behavior, and I can now use it as a reinforcer:
Please note that in this video, I click before sending Phoebe to dig with her “Buddeln!” marker word. The trainer I am today would not use a click in addition to the marker word “Buddeln!” Marker cues don’t require an additional click - they themselves serve both the function of marking the behavior and letting your dog know what her reinforcer will be.
Running into the ocean (“Go swim!”) as a reinforcer for heeling:
Think about the natural behaviors your own dog likes to engage in! Pay close attention to the contexts, and choose one behavior you would like to use as a reinforcer! If you are a Gold or Silver student, use your homework thread to write down a training plan: when and where will you name the behavior? What will you reinforce with it? If you use something that doesn’t automatically end (like swimming or sniffing girl pee), when and how will you end the reward? Run your plan by me, and then get started!
A sampling of what prior students have said about this course ...
Chrissi is a fantastic instructor! She is exceedingly patient and positive, and she breaks down and explains concepts in a very logical way without being overwhelming. She really went above and beyond providing personal attention and support to each gold and silver student!
This was a neat and fun class. I really like the way Chrissi showed us to think about reinforcement as a behavior. I found that it changed the way that I approached it and it also showed me that I was treating behaviors and reinforcement differently during the class (inadvertently). Chrissi was excellent about tailoring a plan for us (at gold) that worked well for us. She had excellent observation skills and was very patient. I will definitely take another course with her!
I was traveling for part of this session. I loved this material, as an amateur it really made me think in new ways. II'll really need to pore over it to get the most out of it. And kudos to Chrissi for making complex info very understandable.
Chrissi is a terrific instructor. She explains concepts well, and is great at problem solving. I really enjoyed this class and recommend it to anyone wanting to expand their reinforcement toolbox.
Chrissi is a great instructor. She is patient, thoughtful, and supportive in working through training plans that need adjusting.