ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Competing Reinforcers

>But what if the sniffing is a behavior that is self-rewarding to the dog -- "what is that smell? another dog? I just love the smell of another dog". So, if sniffing is intrinsically rewarding to the dog, without some other feedback (NRM), extinction may never occur.

I luckily lost a long winded post about NRM when my PC decided to hiccup. On the subject on NRM, I have used them and now classify them in the same category of when I used to do J&P training and I would learn the latest OTCH trainers method of teaching the fill-in-the-blank or only consulted trainers who knew *my* breed about the problems *my* breed has. NRM might for some trainers get a response for some behaviors that the trainers need. I would never rely on it to replace sound training goals, criteria, and observation.

The NRM has its popularity in dog training mostly, probably because of the heavy reliance on voice in much of dog training. OTOH, there is little discussion about how you teach it and how you make it salient to the dog. The conditions under which it is commonly applied are the I-haven't-a-clue and the yeah-so-what? conditions. The I-haven't-a-clue are when you are working a response and it's like trying to guess the capital of South Dakota (for those who know it, substitute Maine or Montana or Arizona). You can only think of two or three cities at all in those states. Your dog is looking around and at you and trying to figure out "what-the-heck?" You guess Fargo, wasn't that a movie? Whoops, try again, not even getting the information that Fargo is not in South Dakota. Response rate is slowed and the trainer ignores it. You think and think and think and guess La Platte, thinking Plains and was that a town? Heck, it's a try, maybe it was right. It's a river. Response rate has gone south. This subject needs lower criteria and a clue of what is going on. And the trainer is failing the feedback the subejct is giving - the subject is giving NRM as clear as day - the cues you are giving are not going to be rewarded with the correct response - try again.

And then there's the I-can't-do-it that sometimes occurs. I ask my dog - a corgi - to jump on the counter. Knowing she's been up on a counter before - it wasn't that counter and it hurt and she can't remember how she did it. Lower the criteria.

But sniffing at the bottom of the A-frame isn't about sniffing about the bottom of the A-frame. Forget sniffing and A-frame and restate the statement as "But what if an incorrect response is a behavior that is self-rewarding to the dog? So, if an incorrect response is intrinsically rewarding to the dog, without some other feedback (NRM), extinction (of that self-warding response) may never occur. List all the things your dog does that he likes to do on his own on one side of the page. Put them in order of *his* priority. Now list all the things on the right hand side of the page that *you* want him to do. Put them in order of priority. Now look at the left hand to see if there's any way you can use them a rewarders. Now look at the right hand and decide how long your dog will live and how smart you are.

Paddy is having the same problem with competing mailmen, birds, telephones. Some responses we may want to introduce competition reinforcers carefully and very carefully try to set up those reinforcers. Sometimes we don't have a choice.

So I have a clicker trained agility dog. Has she ever sniffed at the bottom of the A-frame? Yep, and I distinctly recall two times when I set her up at the start line at a trial, I said jump and she turned a 180 and went to food at ringside. Do you have to use a NRM when you call the dog off the couch to get a bath? Do you have to use a NRM when a dog is pulling you down the street?

These situations come under the "yeah-so-what?" category. see if you can get to this page and watch Lassie. Now why would Lassie, who knows perfectly well how to save Timmy from the burning barn, from a twister, from being kidnapped, not perform those behaviors? What can Lassie possibly find rewarding about laying on a couch and being offered caviar? And how would a dog who knows about laying on a couch with caviar ever want to save Timmy from the burning barn?

Go back and look at your list. You will never extinguish behaviors that have been learned (a few caveats about that). The dog will never forget it likes caviar and laying on couches and sniffing grass. You can absolutely convince the dog that most - but not all - of the best things in life are under your control. Even the ones you don't control, your dog thinks you do - and so my dogs in agility will not work for other people, even those with food in their hands - because they are now convinced that I have the best things and they understand the conditions that get them.

So sniffing at the A-frame? Yes, you can inhibit that behavior without a NRM. It starts with taknig that action - and the slow approach to the A-frame that allowed it to develop - as a NRM - what you are doing is not working, try again. Give more information. Make sure your criteria is appropriate, that you have changed criteria exactly as the dog required and you are rewarding that dog with a reinforcer for that dog in a manner that will ensure the next performance of the response is the same or better - however you define better.

There will always be competing reinforcers - learn to use them so that the left side and the right side of your list become yours.

Barbara Nibling
copyright 2001 Barbara Nibling


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