What Am I Reinforcing?

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How Pigeon gets dinner.

In my last post, I wrote about how dogs communicate with us. This month, I’d like to talk about how we communicate with our dogs.

One way we do it, of course, is “training.” I’m a big fan of training—so much so that I decided to make a career of it. I try to train my own dog formally a little bit every day, working on new behaviors or improving on existing ones.

When I’m formally training, there are three key things I’m doing to communicate clearly with the dog.

1.) Setting the dog up to succeed. If we’re working on a new behavior, we start in a quiet place where the behavior I want is likely and other options are less so.

2.) Using a distinct signal to mark behavior I like. A click or a marker word, such as “yes,” lets the dog know exactly when she’s met the criteria we’re working on. This step isn’t always necessary, but when you’re working on something brand-new, or a behavior that’s hard to simply reinforce with good timing, a marker can really help a dog learn faster.

3.) Following the marker with a reinforcer. That’s how the dog knows what the marker means. The reinforcer might be a food treat, especially when we’re workong on a new behavior. But it might also be the toss of a toy, access to the outdoors, or the opportunity to do a favorite activity. Anything a dog wants or needs in a given moment can be a reinforcer.

This structure makes communication crystal clear. Here’s the thing, though: the other 23.5 hours a day, when you’re not formally training? Your dog is still learning, according to the exact same rules as she was during your training session.

Upon every interaction with you or the environment, your dog gets feedback, and her behavior will change in response to that feedback. Behaviors that are reinforced—whether by you or the environment—will be repeated. If you’re not thinking about what your dog is learning from these interactions, arranging her environment so that she is likely to try out the behaviors you prefer, and making sure those preferred behaviors “work” for her, she will very likely be learning something you’d rather she didn’t.

If you understand the basics of formal training, though, you can use them to structure your informal interactions with your dog throughout the day. Let’s look at an example using a common learned behavior many owners want to reduce: jumping to greet.

Note: There are formal ways to work on this, but my goal here is to show you how a little attention to casual interactions can help the dog understand what you want.

1.) Set the dog (and yourself) up to succeed. Gate off the entryway so the dog can’t make a beeline for you or visitors. Enter the house calmly.

2.) Identify behavior you like. Before your dog has a chance to jump, use a marker word, like yes, to let him know that you like how all four of his feet are currently on the floor. Or if he’s already jumping on the other side of the gate, wait for him to put his feet back on the floor and mark that.

3.) Reinforce the behavior you like. Immediately follow your yes by coming down to the dog’s level to greet—so he can get the attention he’s craving in return for staying low rather than jumping.

Dogs may not speak our language, but they are terrific observers of our behavior, and they quickly pick up on the things we do and say that reliably predict the stuff they find important—in other words, that predict reinforcement. They are extremely interested in learning what they can do to cause us to do these things. And when they behave, they are usually only doing what has worked in the past.

Not all of the reinforcement in their world comes from us. But just by dint of our living arrangements with dogs, a lot of it does. And we’re also in a pretty good position to manage reinforcement from other sources.

So when you feel like you and your dog are having a communication breakdown, ask yourself: What have I been reinforcing? What am I reinforcing right now? And what could I reinforce instead?

In the comments below please chime in with your questions, comments, or training stories! 


Kiki Yablon is a Karen Pryor Academy certified dog trainer. She provides customized in-home training in Chicago, and also teaches group classes through Animal Behavior Training Concepts.

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Comments (5)


Such good information - the concept of just being mindful of the concept of reinforcement has really helped our training with Munches. It's definitely something we weren't as present about prior to our work with Kiki. Thank you!


Great blog Kiki. Great reminder that learning is happening all the time so we better be paying attention.

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