Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 

Types of Reinforcers

Author: Kay Laurence

Chocolate AND wine?

What you may prefer is chocolate, a gift for you would be chocolate, a gift for a friend may be wine. But you may both need to learn about chocolate wine.

Behaviour is in a constant state of change. In fact the one thing you can guarantee is that it is the nature of behaviour to change. You may believe that you will always love chocolate, that it is a fixed behaviour and it does not change. But if you have eaten so much that the idea of another piece makes you feel uncomfortable, then your behaviour has changed. Working for two weeks in a chocolate factory served to associate severe displeasure with the smell of cooking chocolate for me. What was a reinforcer stopped being a reinforcer and slipped over to the dark side – a punisher, an aversive, something I wished to avoid. This can be temporary or permanent depending on how traumatic the punishment, or aversive effect has been.

If behaviour is constantly shifting then the reinforcers and their values are shifting as well. The reinforcer is entirely defined by the effect it has on the behaviour. If the dog is tired, another chase after a ball could be one chase too many, if the dog is full another piece of food make be taken by habit, but make the dog feel more uncomfortable. And at that moment, being allowed to rest becomes the effective reinforcer.

We have many, many different types of reinforcers available and success in using them depends on our skill of being able to apply them appropriately and effectively. This means choosing the right reinforcer that maintains or strengthens the behaviour at that time, in the right quantity.

Reinforcers can generally be split into two categories:

natural reinforcers (primary reinforcers): that need no previous experience to be reinforcing; such as food, security, using instinctive behaviours, and
learned or associated reinforcers (secondary reinforcers); such as a clicker, a “good boy”, retrieving a ball.
(Chasing the ball is a primary reinforcer, using an instinctive or innate behaviour, but retrieving the ball to a person to elicit another throw would be learned from experience).
I want to examine each reinforcer and the effect it has on behaviour. None are perfect or suit every situation, behaviour or receiver. Reinforcers also have greatly different values and in one situation a slice of meat will be a reinforcer but not when a more valued reinforcer is possible. My Gordons are reinforced by the bird hunting process and food is of no value in that situation, similarly with the collies when herding. Away from that environment food is very high value.

We term this reinforcer as functional – it serves to compliment the behaviour that we are wanting to reinforce, not contradict it.

Chasing a lump of chicken is a strong reinforcer for a Gordon Setter.
Stalking a bird is a strong reinforcer for a Gordon Setter.
Both of these activites are reinforcers.

It is up to the dog to decide which is their reinforcer choice in each situation, we cannot force them to choose what we would wish, or is more convenient to us.

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