Rate of Reinforcement - why is this such a big deal?
A client was asking me about another dog in the class they attend who is doing so well in training that it stands out obviously to anyone observing the class. In fact, the assumption was made that this adolescent husky (yes, a husky - for all those who think they're untrainable ) could not possibly be the first dog this person has trained. In fact, this is the first dog they've had from a puppy and the first they've trained. Added to that, this young ball of energy had two homes in his short life, prior to the current owners taking him in - so not necessarily the easiest start to life.
Yet his performance in class is nothing short of brilliant: He is attentive, focused, highly motivated and learning at a rapid rate. We're all seriously impressed by this new dog/handler team and the question is "Why are they doing so well?"
The answer in my opinion lies in one main crucial area: RAPID RATE OF REINFORCEMENT. The handler part of the team is always ready to reinforce the behaviour we're working on immediately and every time after each of many quick repetitions. The dog is never left hanging around wondering what to do. He is consistently set up to be reinforced for the desired behaviour and doesn't have time to think about getting distracted by anything else. As a consequence, he is rehearsing and being reinforced for the behaviour as well as continual engagement so much that these behaviours just get stronger and stronger. Plus, because he experiences a high rate of reinforcement, the association with working with his "dad" and being at training is such a positive one that there is no room for frustration or any other negative emotions that could interfere with learning.
We find so often that people are inherently stingy when it comes to dispensing food in training. While we may have succeeded in convincing most owners to use food to train, resistance remains in the form of trying to use as little as possible. Others simply make the mistake of expecting too much too soon in the form of raising criteria for an exercise way too quickly, unintentionally setting the dog up to fail and thereby lowering the rate of reinforcement to almost nothing - because the dog isn't able to meet the requirement for reinforcement.
Dogs that succeed have owners who reinforce readily and frequently. Think about it logically and it makes sense: We are using positive reinforcement as a training method i.e. food is given to reinforce the behaviour you desire. The acquisition of food causes a release of dopamine which acts on neural pathways and strengthens those involved in the behaviour that has just been performed. Therefore the more frequently you actually reinforce, the more learning is actually taking place in the brain - it's not just a nice idea, it's a scientific fact!
Many new trainers or owners struggle a bit with the mechanics of training - holding a clicker, managing treats, getting timing right etc. which might also impact on getting a good rate of reinforcement. We completely understand that this is a new skill for many and have endless patience for clients who are actually trying to learn it - I promise if you keep trying you'll get there and your dog will do well. But please leave the baggage around using "lots of food", "spoiling my dog" or "he should do it because I say so" at the door. It's only setting yourself and your dog up for failure.
And guess what...? The higher your rate of reinforcement, the more willing your dog will be to work with you, the more you will both enjoy the training process and the less important the actual food treats will end up becoming. Yes, we will always use them, but the entire process will become so reinforcing that your dog will actually choose to work for food rather than get it for free!