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.

positive reinforcement in dog trainingYour 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!reward

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:


  1. No Rewards (everyone needs to know when they are doing a good job, rewards increase likelihood)
  2. Constant Rewards (everyone gets tired of the same old thing or complacent eventually)
  3. Progressive Rewards (progressively better rewards can be motivating but difficult to sustain)
  4. 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:


  1. At home with few distractions use low-value: kibble, carrots, ice cubes, green beans, or dry biscuits.simple dog rewards
  2. In your yard use medium-value: commercial training treats or meaty-type treats.
  3. 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! dog variable ratio reinforcement

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 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.successive approximations

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!

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  1. alvint ragotero says:

    Very informative, I think this technique will be very useful for my me. I will try it on my dog Snoop.Thank a lot.


  2. Gale says:

    I train my dogs using DASH:
    Desire… the dog’s relationship with me
    Accuracy … how the dog responds to the command
    Speed …… how fast the dog responds
    Habitat ….. train everywhere because dogs don’t generalize.

    As for rewards…. I use a variety of treats of different values, and vary the time of the reward… the reward is presented, but they never know if they are going to get it right away, if I am going to throw it, or if I am going to take off running with it and they have to catch me to get it.


  3. patricia says:

    my j/r dog as got agressive if she is asleep say behind my chair i am sat
    on and i get up by doing this i have disturbed her she will rush at me and try to bite meand she is so strong . she also does this when we go to bed she will rush at both of us to bite us she is 11 years old and been doin this for 3years any advice please patric


  4. It is my belief that the best way to ensure your dog will be eager to obey your commands is by reinforcing your position as Alpha. In the wild,dogs don’t get food rewards for every good behavior.They are required by the pack leader to do what is expected to ensure the survival of the pack.If one dog becomes slack or disobedient, the pack leader quickly corrects by asserting dominance,maybe even getting a little physical. The slacker runs the risk of losing his/her position in the pack, and if they are seen as detrimental to the pack, the pack leader might run them out of the pack all together.Privilege,ie,(food,sleeping quarters,mating rights,) comes with rank.Every day I show my dogs that I am the pack leader. I eat the best food, and I eat first. I show favor to the best behaved dog, by dropping crumbs of my food on the floor,(not feeding by hand) and only allowing the beta to clean it up. At the end of the day,I sleep in the best bed, and show favor by letting the beta lie with me on my bed for 5 minutes before sending them to their place. I only allow the dog who has shown eagerness to please me by going the extra mile, to lick my face. When you learn to tap into your dogs instinctual wants and needs, and assert your dominance as their leader in a fair and consistent way, your dog’s will show respect and obey without hesitation and the only reward that is necessary is to be shown favor by the pack leader and to be part of the pack. The only time I use food as a motivator is when I train pups. Food is important in shaping the right response. Once the behavior is learned,food is not longer needed, and in fact becomes a crutch for bribing your dog into compliance.


    Minette Reply:

    I disagree, dogs need motivators too and excel with the right training, it all about knowing HOW to use food or games as a reinforcer.

    Most of the Alpha Dog theories are being debunked because dogs are not wolves and there is even evidence to support the idea that wolves live in family packs and not alpha packs unless they are unnaturally placed in these packs by us humans!

    The changes to dog training are exciting and refreshing!


  5. Natalie says:

    You might want to check with her vet. She might have hypothyroidism. It can be a cause for aggression.


  6. help. I own a bischon she will be a year old in July she was peeing and pooing on newsparper. I take her out ever morning, she will pee outside on a lead. Right After taking her out for one hour 0n a lead she will come in and poo where ever she wants. I can not see her pooing she waits till I turn my head and poos under the kitchen table. I am considering selling her as I am furstated.


    Barbara Reply:

    I had some similar problems which were easily resolved with advice from my trainer. First I bought some bells to put on the door to the outside. Then I took the dogs outside on a leash to the spot I want them to go and ring the bell as I exit the house. Once they go I reward with a treat (or as they go if your dog can do 2 things at once). Then I bring them in. But you must watch them constantly until they have peed and pooped outside. If need be, pull up a chair and wait ( I only had to wait about 5 minutes until they caught on). Take the bischon out every time she eats, plays, wakes up. And wait until she goes, if she doesn’t go, bring her in to her crate, bed, whatever and don’t let her lose until she does go outside.

    Once you have done this consistently for a little while, she will start ringing the bell and telling you when she has to go. it worked like a champ for me. Hope you have the same success.


  7. eric albert says:

    I use a combination of high value treats, verbal praise, and physical contact as reinforcers. Not all dogs are food oriented, and it’s a good idea to determine what is the best motivator for each dog. In dog training, “one size doesn’t fit all”. Important components to increase reliability include the the 3 P’s, e.g., Practice, Persistence, and Patience.


  8. Lori says:



  9. Jamey says:

    My 9 month old pit mix is not food motivated. He does listen, then obeys if he feels so inclined. I think that this intermittent and varied reward thing may work. I was kind of slow with the clicker when I got him at 4 and 1/2 months. I’ll start today and let you know.
    Thanks for your good info.


  10. Marlee says:

    Reese is a 13 month old chocolate lab. Does multiple tricks but likes to jump on people to greet them at the door, including my husband and I. We’ve tried spray bottles, it works for the most part and then the he’s fine. How do I get him to not jump when anyone enters the house. Also another thing he does is pulls while walking him. We walk him every evening. I’ve taken him to obedience training and he did great. Is there a trick to not pulling that I haven’t used. Tried treats, walking the other direction to get his attention, getting him to focus on me for a 10 seconds then continue. Having him sit on demand to stop from pulling. The problem is if my husband is walking him, he’s not consistent with what I am trying to accomplish. He’s a great dog and very smart. I’m just trying to make him better at things he seems to not be good at. Thanks!


    ele Reply:

    I used to own a Standard Poodle. Whenever I took her on a walk she would pull to the point of choking. The only thing that worked was to use a Haltie. It fits on the dogs head and if he pulls, his head is turned to the side (which dogs hate). It doesn’t hurt the dog but really stops them from pulling.


  11. Barbara Gall says:

    First I want to thank you so much for the wonderful e-mail bonuses and hints that you have sent along to me. I bought your program because I am in my 70’s and disabled. I have a 2 and 1/2 year old- 90 pound Golden Doodle. He would not come to me- inside or outside.
    Since I bought your program, he has become so amazingly well behaved. He sits, stays, lays down, and goes to his bed. So far, all of his training has been in the house, building a strong foundation. He would not even come to me in the house before I bought your program. But now, he comes on a run, inside.
    Since the weather is getting better, I have tried his commands outside a few times. I was really impressed that he came from quite far away at a dead run to me….several times now. What I need is for my dog to come whenever I call him. I guess the mistake I made before I got your program was that I needed him to come, I called him, and then I put him in. He wanted to stay out and play, so he figured if he came, he would be put in. I have changed that. My challenge now is, how do I get him to come to me so I can put him in the house so he does not connect the dots to being called and being put in?


    jeff Reply:

    sometimes my 10 mo. old puppy wont come when I call her if she slips out the door when we open the door.


  12. Diana says:

    I enjoy the program I purchased from you and dog is responding beautifully.

    But, I have to ask, (JIC)Please do not automatically send me anything that costs until I get employment. I am running very short.

    Thanks very much.


  13. My dog is an EPI dog ( and I am unable to use treats as Raven my GSD cannot digest them. I’ve used toys but only the ball gets her attention. Do you have any suggestions as she excelled in obedience and is now 4 years old?


  14. I love this concept as it applies to dog behavior……….it will really help me “refreshing” basic commands…….my dog is absolutely great learning new things; but she is blaze about the old foundational stuff………….you have really helped me with this great reminder about intermittent reinforcement – thanks. i love your emails….keep em coming.


  15. mary says:

    My new addition to our home since January of this year is an adorable little over a year old Affenpinscher. He is very smart, but, not having him when he was a little baby, I am finding that he is stubborn when you call him to come, or put your hand out to touch him. He backs up and then sits down. The command to come is not good let. Any advice would be appreciated.


  16. Elizabeth Chew says:

    Thank you for the advice on intermitent rewards.My maltese westie crossed one day refused to drop on command. She tried to ignore me but i called her to look at me. then i make the hand gesture to drop. She did for me and lie down.Then I told her to stay which she did.she is 4 yrs old now and I thought we have to reenforce all our commands every now and then.Her brother did it with no problem. i must use your suggestion.


  17. richie rich says:

    there are definately tips and secrets for training for any type of breed or pedigree that most professional dog trainers dont tell you to keep dogs reponsive and consistent to commands. i’ve tried this and its detailed and yet so easy. i have a razor edge line pitbull and i thought my dog was the most stubborn animal in the world, i was pretty amazed how lil things make a difference when it comes to training him. he’s totally changed. i felt like a dog whisperer lol. anyway i wanna share the info so here’s the link.


  18. Rosemary Moon says:

    We have three dogs, one puppy in training, one 2yr. old, falling out of her training, one 12yr. old who is a FOOD HOUND DELUXE! Now when I reward one for something the others all crowd around expecting a treat too. It’s difficult to separate them since our house is small. Help.
    ALso, I ordeed your whole system some time ago, charged it, but never received anything. Please reply to both?


  19. jeff says:

    When my dog slips out the door she wont come back when I call her.


  20. Clayton says:

    We all like to be rewarded for out efforts and I suspect dogs are no different. I am not sure the reward matters as much once the behaviour is conditioned. For example most Police Dogs are rewarded with their favorite toy rather than food treats. But during the initial training the rewards need to be more enticing to get the dog to moderate their behaviour.


  21. Tamica Blaho says:

    I don’t even know how I stopped up right here, but I believed this post used to be great. I do not recognise who you’re but certainly you’re going to a well-known blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!


  22. how do say hello how are you in spanish


  23. Kelly Hayes says:

    Gotta LOVE Susan Garret acronyms! DASH , CRAP, IYC etc. 🙂
    I Love Her! One of the few positive trainers who consistently produces world level performances from her dogs. Positive should never not mean permissive!


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