Maximising Your Dog’s Training: Insights from Mehrkam and Wynne, 2014

June 11, 2024

Training your dog can be a rewarding experience, but it often comes with its challenges. A fascinating study by Mehrkam and Wynne in 2014 offers valuable insights into how different reinforcement strategies can impact your dog’s learning and behaviour. Let’s dive into their findings and explore practical ways you can apply this knowledge in your dog training routine.


Understanding Reinforcement Schedules

Continuous Reinforcement: This involves rewarding your dog every time they perform the desired behaviour. While this method helps your dog learn quickly, they may also stop the behaviour just as quickly once the rewards are no longer provided. Does this mean you have to carry food or toys with you all the time to get your dog to be obedient? Not necessarily, see intermittent reinforcement as follows.

Intermittent Reinforcement: In this approach, rewards are given after a certain number of correct behaviours, attempts, or based on the attitude of your dog (depending on the criteria you are working on). It’s important to randomise the rewards and not become predictable. By doing so, you hack into the gambler mindset, making your dog more invested in the behaviour because they have to perform it to achieve possible success. Dogs trained with intermittent reinforcement tend to maintain the behaviour longer, even when the rewards stop.

Application Tip: Start with continuous reinforcement when teaching a new behaviour to ensure your dog understands what you expect. Make sure to generalise and temptation-proof the behaviour first. Once they have mastered it, switch to intermittent reinforcement to make the behaviour more robust and long-lasting.


The Power of Reward Magnitude

High-Value Rewards: It’s not about the size but rather what your dog considers high-value, which can be food or anything that activates their predatory drive (play that works with the dog’s inherent temperament). Using these high-value rewards can significantly enhance their learning and performance, especially for new or challenging behaviours. If you make it an event that lasts longer—like they do in casinos—rather than just giving the reward to the dog without any investment from you, it will have a greater effect.


Understanding Your Dog’s Perspective

When discussing the value of rewards or what is reinforcing, it’s crucial to consider it from your dog’s perspective, not just what you think is rewarding. There are two keyways to determine if a reward is effective:

Effect on Behaviour and Attitude: Observe if the behaviour you’re reinforcing changes in frequency, accuracy, or speed for the better. Additionally, check if your dog is loving doing the behaviour with an eager and enthusiastic attitude. If not, what you thought was reinforcing in the moment was not.

Body Language: Pay attention to your dog’s body language after receiving the reward. Signs of excitement and engagement indicate that the reward is effective. You would be surprised how many people will tell me how much their dog ‘loves’ a pat or cuddle for all the hard work they do, and yet, when we review footage, guess what we find. Lots of stress signals and body language that conveys the opposite—and I don’t just mean in a snapshot, but consistently over time too. Signs such as lip licking, moving away, tails stopping wagging, looking away, shying away, ears and head bowed down or away, appeasing licking, yawning, and whale eye are just a few obvious indicators.

By understanding and applying the principles of reinforcement schedules and reward magnitude, you can enhance your dog’s training experience and achieve more consistent results. Start with continuous rewards to teach new behaviours, then transition to intermittent reinforcement to maintain them. Use high-value rewards to keep your dog motivated and engaged, making sure to view the reward from your dog’s perspective. Remember, the effectiveness of a reward is determined by your dog’s response and body language, not just what you think is rewarding. For practical training tips and personalised advice, consider seeking help from a professional trainer. With these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to a well-trained, happy dog.

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