Delayed Reinforcement

May 9, 2021

Fun fact about me: I go to the gym at OrangeTheory a few times a week (usually). One of the things I love most about my gym is that I get a report at the end of every class with a bunch of statistics about my workout. Yesterday my heart rate monitor died right at the beginning of my workout. When I got my statistic report for my workout it only recorded the first ten minutes of the hour class I did before the monitor died.

On my car ride home I felt myself feeling a bit bummed and not really as fulfilled from my workout. It got me wondering why I was feeling this way? I realized that those reports I get from my workouts are VERY reinforcing for me. I love numbers and science and statistics. So doing all that work at the gym and not having anything to show for it made my efforts feel less than.

Where are the dogs?

This led to me thinking about my dogs naturally. Is this how they feel when they don’t get reinforcement for their efforts? Would the reinforcement strategies that work for me work for my dog? While I will never be able to know exactly how my dog feels about things, realizations like this definitely make me more aware of how reinforcement drives behavior. I don’t think my dogs would work for an hour for an email with a bunch of numbers in it. (For one they can’t read) But delayed reinforcement just doesn’t work for dogs.

Most people find money very reinforcing. We understand that our paychecks are coming once a week or every two weeks and we continue to work even though the reinforcement (money) is delayed. Imagine this: I ask my dog to do six tricks in a row on Monday and then I say “Great job! I will give you six cookies on Friday!”…That just isn’t going to work for them. Even delaying your dog’s reinforcement by a few extra seconds can sometimes cause them to forget what they are being reinforced for.

Best practices?

So what is the best strategy to deliver reinforcement? Using a bridge like a clicker or a whistle or a verbal marker is a good way to reinforce behaviors immediately for animals who don’t understand time. That way you can mark the exact moment the behavior you want to reinforce happens and then deliver the primary reinforcer later (food, toy, etc.).

Reinforcement is happening all of the time for your dog, whether that be from you or from the environment. Learning how reinforcement drives behavior will allow you to make the most of your training and help you live the best life with your pet!

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