Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 

The Science

Author: Kay Laurence
“[Science] … is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. “

Steven Novella

A REINFORCER is that which makes a behaviour stronger, happen more frequently and resistant to extinguishing.
A PUNISHER is the opposite: that which make a behaviour weaker, happen less frequently, fade or completely extinguish.
These terms “rewards” and “punishers” have led us into trouble. We have a dislike of using the term “punishment” because of the association of aversive punishment – that which cause the dog pain or harm. Punishment alone diminishes behaviour. By just ignoring an attempt for attention we can punish the behaviour, perhaps we were too busy to notice, but we delivered punishment.

It was not our intention to cause harm or discomfort, but the behaviour would become less likely to repeat. Our intentions get us into all sorts of problems, especially when we use terminology inaccurately.

To become more effective in our shaping of behaviour we have to learn to remove our emotional needs woven into the communication. We love to feel we are avoiding punishment and rewarding our dogs, when in truth we should be reinforcing behaviours. By operating in that layer above our emotional involvement we triple our effectiveness and make it far easier for our dogs to learn. They just want to get it right, they know they are important but please give me clear information!

Effective punishment should only diminish the behaviour, not the dog or the relationship. The dangerous zone, that causes the disappointing results, is unintentional punishment and reinforcement delivered to the wrong behaviour. By improving our ability to see what is happening, measure the outcomes without emotional analysis, and deliver the reinforcer accurately we can see immediate improvements and move closer to our goals.

This does not mean we have to train without an emotional component, but we must become aware of how our emotional desires and interpretation can clutter the classroom.

For the dog, the reinforcer that is foremost in their mind is arriving at the park and all that they will enjoy. The anticipation of this results in some pretty urgent progress to their destination, which for us is faster than we would like to walk. The dog is prepared to put up with the discomfort of pulling either the collar against their throat or being nagged, because the reinforcer they receiving outweighs the discomfort.
Instead, we can arrange to make no progress anywhere, not the park, or crossing the road until we have delivered lots of reinforcers for slow walking. These reinforcers may not have the value of the park, but temporarilly the park will have to be delayed, maybe for some weeks, until we can reinforce slow (for the dog) walking together. We need to find lots of small reinforcers we can use as part of the slow walk.
The recipient, in this case the dog, gets to choose if a consequence is reinforcing or punishing.


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