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Rewards and Reinforcements - Are they all the same for Dogs?

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

Are Rewards the Same as Reinforcements? Which Rewards are Best?


Rewards and reinforcements should be determined by the dog and are different depending on the method one is applying to achieve their goal.


Because Cognitive Behavioral Therapy does not rely on rewards or reinforcements, we can use non-transferable rewards to establish and strengthen core exercises. These core, or platform, exercises, change perception and act as the transferable element.


There are three types of rewards.


Contrived Rewards –


Contrived rewards are commonly treats, pats or toys. The reward is pre-determined by the person. Contrived rewards are great for teaching commands to a basic level - literally teaching the meaning of a word ("Sit" means the bum goes on the floor). Commonly it takes a few minutes to teach the meaning of a word using a contrived reward to a dog over the age of six months.


Opportunity Driven Rewards –


Once commands are taught using contrived rewards it is necessary to advance the strength of the commands by using Opportunity Driven Rewards. These rewards are determined by the dog, and they achieve these rewards (or goals) by following the commands. This sounds basic; however, it requires creativity, timing and the ability to change the mind-set to "teaching when what the dog wants is also what the person wants" - in other words, "teach at easy; apply to hard". By allowing the dog to determine their own reward, they change their perception of the person's ability to "read" and calmly manage them in all situations while strengthening transferable skills.


Forced Rewards –


"All dogs should be food motivated" "You need higher motivating (yummier) treats" This mindset is understandable if one is adhering to Conditioning Methods, since these rely on reinforcements to encourage expected behavior. Finding the best reward is not wrong or harmful, however, it can be limiting or ineffective in changing behavior because these rewards are not intended to change perception. In other words, yes, the dog may like the reward in some situations, but not be interested in another, or the dog knows “right from wrong”, but is not interested in changing his behavior based on the reward.


Distraction Training and Avoidance Techniques rely on the treat to motivate the dog away from the cause of the unwanted behaviour. This approach can increase unwanted behavior (ie- leash reactivity) because it goes against the nature of dogs - they need to "read" subjects, not be distracted from them.


Classical and Counter Conditioning, which apply forms of associative techniques, rely on reinforcements to change perception of the stimuli. In a nutshell, Conditioning Methods apply rewards as reinforcements. These methods, of course, can be effective; however, if they are not, it is commonly because the reinforcement is of little interest to the dog.


So, the reward and/or reinforcement applied depends on the method one is applying. Positive Reinforcement Training uses Contrived Rewards, CBT uses both Contrived and Opportunity Driven Rewards. When Positive Reinforcement Training is proving limiting (commonly with adolescent and adopted dogs) then switching to CBT is recommended, as opposed to incorporating forced rewards and/or aversive methods.



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