Intermittent Reinforcement and Why it’s Key to Building a Dog Training Foundation
Intermittent Reinforcement is conditioning your dog to perform a certain command or task in which a reward (jackpot) is not administered every time the desired response is performed. This differs from the idea that continuous reinforcement – which is when your dog receives the reward every time his desired response is performed.
For example, on a continuous reinforcement schedule a dog who sits and stays would a reward (reinforcement) every single time he follows the command to sit and stay. With intermittent reinforcement, your dog would only receive his reward at random and unpredictable intervals, with the goal that this will cause an increased chance that the desired behavior will continue consistently with intermittent reinforcement.
Intermittent Reinforcement is a type of Positive Reinforcement
Using positive reinforcement to train your dog means you reward the behaviors you like and ignore the behaviors you do not like. You can use treats, praise, or life rewards to reward your dog’s good behavior.
Positive reinforcement allows you to communicate clearly with your dog. You decide what you want your dog to do and let him know by offering rewards when he does the desired action.
When you reward your dog for doing things correctly, he’s more likely to repeat those good behaviors because dogs aim to please.
Punishment is not always so clear. A good example is punishing a dog for housebreaking accidents.
In this case, you catch the dog urinating on your carpet and scold it or resort to the age-old trick of smacking it with a rolled up newspaper.
Your intention is to tell the dog that it’s not acceptable to eliminate inside your home. Instead, dogs often learn that it’s not safe to eliminate when you are around.
This is one of the reasons you may find your dog has “accidents” when left alone, but you never seem to catch him in the act. There’s definitely a communication problem; fear is simply not an effective way for a dog to learn things properly.
With positive reinforcement, you can avoid this confusion. With the house training example, you want to teach your dog to eliminate outside rather than in your home. Instead of punishing your dog, you’ll reward the behavior you want, which is going to the bathroom outside. In this case, every time your dog goes potty outside, you give him lots of praise and treats or let him go for some playtime.
If you’re patient and consistent, your dog will learn that good things happen when he relieves himself outside and no accidents are happening inside. Your dog will soon be going outside in an effort to reap the rewards because you managed to clearly communicate with your dog.
According to the AKC “The Psychology behind Positive Reinforcement
The psychological principle of positive reinforcement training is a process known as operant conditioning, a system of learning in which a reward or punishment is added or removed, resulting in the increase or decrease of a specific behavior. Positive reinforcement training concentrates on the addition of a reward to increase the likelihood of a behavior in the dog.
Initiated in the 1940s by psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner, this method of dog training did not take hold until the 1990s. Since its reemergence, however, positive reinforcement dog training has become part of mainstream animal training and is consistently gaining in popularity.
Converts to this method of reinforcement training believe it works better than more traditional training methods that are based on dominance and punishment. Rather than asking a dog to behave out of fear of reprisal, positive reinforcement encourages the dog to behave because it is more rewarding and fun.
This creates a stronger bond, based on mutual trust and respect, between owner and dog and allows for clearer communication between the two. Proponents also see an increase of willingness to work, eagerness to please, and increased rate of learning.”
Intermittent Reinforcement is Crucial to Good Training
Fewer treats can help improve command compliance. Sometimes I forget to go back to the basics of dog training, and discuss the importance of adopting, and building strong foundational training techniques. I assume you have been following my posts since the beginning or that you already have prior knowledge, for that, please excuse me! And if you’re a new reader, welcome! We hope you’ll stick around!
Foundation training refers to the beginning of any training program. Your foundation is built in the beginning and relied on over time as you continue to train.
I always remember back to Sunday school and the parable to the two builders; one house was built upon the sand and one house built upon the rock. The house upon the sand without a strong foundation could not stand up to the conditions and the tests put upon it.
The great thing about dogs is that you can usually go back and build a stronger foundation if needed as long as there hasn’t been a traumatic event. While training my demonstration dog to do service dog work he had a great obedience foundation, but not a good focus foundation when we competed in obedience we went back and I rebuilt his focus. Intermittent rewards are a very powerful reinforcer, almost one of THE most powerful reinforcers, this is true for humans and animals too!
Let’s look at our rewards:
- No Rewards (everyone needs to know when they are doing a good job, rewards increase likelihood)
- Constant Rewards (everyone gets tired of the same old thing or complacent eventually)
- Progressive Rewards (progressively better rewards can be motivating but difficult to sustain)
- Intermittent Rewards (the “unknown” will I or will I not get a reward is exciting and locks in behavior)
Here is a breakdown of what most dogs would consider as their progression of rewards:
- At home with few distractions use low-value: kibble, carrots, ice cubes, green beans, or dry biscuits.
- In your yard use medium-value: commercial training treats or meaty-type treats.
- At the park use high value-treats, like premium chewy, soft dog treats with great flavors/smells such as peanut butter, salmon, and chicken.
Intermittent Reinforcement is a schedule in which the number of responses needed to provide reinforcement or reward varies from trial to trial or; unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior.
Slot machines are a form of intermittent reinforcement. One never knows when a reward will be dispersed. The very same behavior can bring about no reinforcement, small reinforcement, or HUGE reinforcement!
This can be addictive not only for us humans but also for your dog! Not knowing “when” you will be rewarded and “with what” creates incentive, and you start chasing the reward, you are convinced if you do it “one more time” you will be reinforced. This type of gambling becomes addictive.
The unknown is compelling and solidifies the behavior once the reinforcement is achieved. Predictability can be boring, if you do “X” you will get “Y” it can even be taken for granted and eventually expected, but when you are given a great reward without knowing it’s coming it can be life altering. Human and doggy nature makes it impossible to resist intermittent reinforcement.
Once your dog is performing a task regularly, (he is no longer in the learning stages) you may begin rewarding him intermittently or occasionally for that behavior.
This is sometimes why a dog that once knew Sit or Down no longer listens…it’s no longer reinforcing to listen…if however the owner occasionally praises and rewards his dog for even simple behaviors like sitting or lying down, he will begin to see his dog listen more often. This practice is called extinction. Not knowing if he will be rewarded for listening is, after all, addictive.
Be careful not to become predictable!
It is human nature to form a schedule or a pattern, we reward our dogs at specific times or when a certain number of behaviors have been performed without even meaning too.
I often saw this when people were trying to teach their dogs to “stay”, they didn’t realize they were rewarding their dogs every 5 seconds. Their dogs would pop up at 6 seconds with a concerned look, like “you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain! I stayed for 5 seconds where is my treat?” They had to be taught or set their watch for 5 seconds, 14 seconds, 3 seconds and 30 seconds. If the dog never knows when it’s coming…but trusts that it will come…he will learn patience.
Try to do your best to be as random as possible! If your dog is becoming more difficult or his behavior is becoming predictable YOU may be getting more predictable or boring! Switch it up and reward your dog for easy accomplishments and harder accomplishments.
I once heard it is like rewarding a child who is learning to play the piano only if the last composition is more difficult and was completed successfully. No one wants only to be rewarded for doing more and more difficult tasks. Sometimes a person wants to be rewarded by doing something more simple or successfully completing something they do well normally.
Your dog is the same way, he doesn’t constantly want you to “up the anti” sometimes he wants to be rewarded for “Sitting” or simply complying with your commands, that is worth a treat isn’t it? I think this is why my dogs are so reliable and so well behaved. They would drop on a dime from 50 yards away if a cat ran past them if I asked them too, because I constantly work on obedience and I reward them for making the correct decisions and listening to me. Constant listening leads to reliability even when under temptation or stress! I almost always have a treat on me, or I am close to being able to get one!
Intermittent Rewards are the Key to Your Dog’s Learning
Intermittent Reinforcement helps Positively Direct your Dog’s Prey Drive
Most people think that in order to control their dog’s prey drive, they should teach their dog to ignore it all together, which is practically inconceivable!
The best way to teach your dog to control his instincts is to BUILD them and then add control!
For example, the Border Collie, a herding dog, doesn’t chase sheep at his own whim, he also doesn’t kill them.
His prey drive is built and then he is taught if he wants to play with the sheep; that he must learn to control it!
I use a ball on a string to build my dog’s prey drive. Then I can use that ball as a reward for good behavior.
Learn how to build your dog’s drive and then teach him that obedience will bring about the “chase” game that he desires.
Check out how easily this little boy controls his Belgian Malinois with a toy https://thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/joys-positive-reinforcement-drive-training His obedience is simply amazing!
And if you pay close attention, this boy is also using intermittent reinforcement with his dog, and the dog is happy to perfectly execute each command even without his praise.
Differential Reinforcement and Other Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules
With differential reinforcement schedules you’re often bringing training to the next level.
You may have taught your dog to sit using positive reinforcement, but the training doesn’t stop there. Initially, to help your dog, you may have given him a treat every time he sat.
Now that your dog fully starts understanding what you want, you can shift into giving treats every now and then, and this is when you start getting picky.
You need to proof the behavior and make it more reliable. When you are using these methods, you are basically choosing which behaviors to reinforce and which not to.
This means you will be providing positive reinforcement for the behaviors you like, (you give a treat so the behavior repeats) and you will be providing negative punishment for the behaviors you don’t like (you don’t give the treat so the behavior extinguishes).
This abides to Skinner’s new term into Thorndike’s Law of Effect which states that:
“Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened).
Let’s take a look at these differential reinforcement schedules.
Continuous reinforcement is when behavior is reinforced each time it occurs, one treat, click or jackpot for one positive response to the given command. Because each behavior is reinforced the desired change in behavior is.
However, with continuous reinforcement your dog will only respond until it has received the desired reward. Continuous reinforcement offers very little support to avoid extinction. Continuous reinforcement does not happen in nature where most behavior is intermittent reinforcement.
When should you use a continuous reinforcement schedule? It’s best to use a continuous schedule reinforcement when teaching your dog something new.
The reason for this is that it’s easier for her to make the connection between her behavior and its consequence when she’s consistently rewarded for it. This only needs to happen initially, however. Once she’s reliably performing the behavior when she should, you can put it on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement to maintain it.
Continuous Reinforcement Schedule Examples
- Every time you call your dog to her bowl, she gets a meal.
- Every time you flick the switch, the light goes on.
An alternative to continuous reinforcement is intermittent reinforcement. With intermittent reinforcement, only some, not all, behavioral responses are reinforced. Intermittent Reinforcement can be on a fixed or a random schedule of reinforcement.
Variable ratio reinforcement is based on an average of fixed ratios at different lengths of. Variable ratio reinforcement produces a faster response in behavior than fixed reinforcement.
Interval type intermittent reinforcement provides reinforcement after a period of time that has no set schedule at all. Like ratio reinforcements, interval reinforcement can be on a fixed or variable sequence. Unlike fixed ratio reinforcement, that reinforces consistent obedience, interval reinforcement provides a pattern of responses called scalloping. After reinforcement there is a pause, followed by a few probing responses followed by rapid responses as the interval times out.
Variable interval reinforcement provides reinforcement after a variable period of time has passed. Variable interval schedules are supposed to make it so you have a steady run of consistent execution of commands, more steady that fixed interval reinforcement schedules.
To increase the rate of response in a variable interval schedule you can set a rule that the reinforcement is only available for a set period of time. This rule is referred to as “limited hold” The “limited hold” rule can be used for all schedules of reinforcement. In general, ratio schedules produce a higher rate of behavior than interval schedules; they have shorter inter-response time – the time between any two.
Other types of reinforcement include duration schedules and time schedules. Duration schedules of reinforcement are contingent on a behavior being performed for a period of time. Fixed duration schedules require the behavior be performed for a set period of time whereas variable duration schedule works around some average.
Each performance of behavior is reinforced after a different duration. Variable duration, like variable interval and variable ratio schedules, appear to be random but they are variable around a certain time. With fixed duration and variable duration schedules, reinforcement may not be forthcoming. If the behavior itself does not provide valuable reinforcement the behavior may be weak.
Time schedules of reinforcement can also be fixed or variable. Time schedules of reinforcement deliver reinforcement independent of a behavior.
These are referred to as non-contingent reinforcement. Fixed time schedules are similar to fixed interval schedules except no behavior is required. Variable time schedules deliver reinforcement at irregular intervals regardless of the behavior.
Fixed time and variable time schedules deliver reinforcement with no regard to behavior but when no reinforcement is delivered this is considered extinction. Intermittent reinforcement schedules make extinction more difficult. When behavior is reinforced more regularly it has a lower momentum and is more readily extinguished.
When to use the Appropriate Schedule
Deciding when to reinforce a behavior can depend on a number of factors.
In cases where you are specifically trying to teach a new behavior, a continuous schedule is often a good choice. Once the behavior has been learned, switching to a partial schedule is often preferable.
In daily life, partial schedules of reinforcement occur much more frequently than do continuous ones.
For example, imagine if you received a reward every time you showed up to work on time. Over time, instead of the reward being a positive reinforcement, the denial of the reward could be regarded as negative reinforcement.
Instead, rewards like these are usually doled out on a much less predictable partial reinforcement schedule. Not only are these much more realistic, but they also tend to produce higher response rates while being less susceptible to extinction.
Partial schedules reduce the risk of satiation once a behavior has been established. If a reward is given without end, the subject may stop performing the behavior if the reward is no longer wanted or needed.
For example, imagine that you are trying to teach a dog to sit. If you use food as a reward every time, the dog might stop performing once it is full. In such instances, something like praise or attention may be more effective in reinforcing an already-established behavior.
Intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful tool, and one that I think everyone should use. It is pretty simple really, just pay attention and make sure you’re not becoming predictable or boring. If your dog is taking you for granted or expecting reward, you are probably patterning or reinforcing too often!
This should be fun, keep it simple and catch your dog doing good things! Reward him for listening, even if you “EXPECT” him to! Make sure to use jackpots (more treats or better treats) and you will have him won over in one good session! This is the foundation to first-rate, successful dog training!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.