When a 12 year old is playing soccer and scores the winning goal - she’s not looking for mom to hug her in congratulations. A big kiss on the cheek from mom in front of everyone would be met with pulling away and a “Moooomm, you’re embarrassing me!” What would be reinforcing could be a high five, a Gatorade, or just a cheer.
“The actor is the only one who determines what is is reinforcing to him or her. The values of anyone else is besides the point. To insist that others act in accordance with values that represent no inherent reward to them in a subtle but very real way, denies them full self determination. I decide what is good for you. I think you ought to do what I think best. Otherwise known as coercion. We may hope and wish all we want, but our children, our dogs and our fellow citizens are all looking out for #1, as the saying goes. and Number one decides what number one wants. Not me. Not you.” Melssa Holbrook Pierson, The Secret History of Kindness, Learning from How Dogs Learn.
The concept of rewards can take us beyond being treat dispensers, and at the same time increase the quality of our dog’s behavior by using truly rewarding reinforcers. When you hand a treat to your dog, to they just happen to take it, eating because it's in front of them? Or do they turn to you and look for more, and start offering behaviors to get more? When you pet your dog do they duck away, or look the other direction? Or do they lean into it, pushing for more? What is actually reinforcing to your dog depends on their personality, mood and the situation. My cattle dog Surly isn’t rewarded by being petted while practicing agility, it's seen more as a punishment to have her hold still! She is though reinforced by her favorite trick, jumping my leg.
Don’t feel limited by this! Start thinking outside of the box. What does your dog enjoy? Can you give access to it as a reward for a desired behavior? Rex loves to run up the hill to chase squirrels in the yard. Before he’s allowed out though, he has to sit or down - then is rewarded by me opening the door.
The science behind behavior says that a reward is something that increases the chances of the behavior occurring. So be sure what you're ‘rewarding’ your dog with is actually rewarding, and not punishing! Remember, it’s all from their unique perspective.
Next up...we’ll talk a bit about how to create a Conditioned Emotional Response, or how to make a behavior a reward!