Rate of Reinforcement – Crucial for Dog Training

What is Rate of Reinforcement – Crucial for Dog Training

I’m a rate of reinforcement nut! I LOVE rate of reinforcement! For me, all roads lead to rate of reinforcement – all training problems lead to a lack of rate of reinforcement. I stress rate of reinforcement to the point that people beg me to stop talking about it. Rate of reinforcement is a crucial concept for professional trainers, or those who want to become a professional dog trainer, to understand.

So, what is rate of reinforcement? Rate of frequency refers to the number of times a behavior occurs within a specified period of time. Rate of frequency is how we measure learning – is the frequency of the behavior increasing or decreasing? If not, then the animal is not learning what we’re attempting to train. Reinforcement refers to the consequence that increases a specified behavior. As we know, behavior is consequence driven – i.e., we are likely to repeat or not repeat a behavior, depending on the consequence of that behavior. So, rate of reinforcement is the number of times a reinforcer is delivered for performance of a specified behavior within a designated period of time.

Anyone who truly wants to become a professional dog trainer must understand that there are three elements that must be present for learning to take place – timing, motivation and achievable criteria. Rate of reinforcement is important because it informs you as to whether or not the animal is learning the behavior you are training. If your rate of reinforcement is not increasing, the animal is likely not learning the behavior. You can use rate of reinforcement to determine which of the three required elements (timing, motivation, achievable criteria) is not in place. It also tells you about the strength and fluency of the behavior. If the frequency is maintaining, you know the behavior is being reinforced; if the frequency is increasing and the ratio of successful trials to unsuccessful trials is increasing, you know the animal is gaining fluency and the behavior is becoming stronger.

How Do You Use Rate of Reinforcement to Improve Your Training?

First, let me define a couple of terms that I’ll be using – you may already use these terms, but just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll define them so you know what I mean when using them.

  • Trial – a trial is the sequence “antecedent (or cue), behavior, consequence”
  • Failed Trial – a failed trial is the sequence “antecedent, no behavior or wrong behavior”
  • Set – a set is a specific number of trials (I usually do sets of 5 or 10 because it’s easy to calculate 80% – 4 out of 5, or 8 out of 10)
  • Latency – the time between the antecedent and the performance of the behavior
  • Behavior (or criteria) – in this article, when I refer to a behavior, it is a very specific, defined behavior which includes latency, distance from handler, handler position, distraction, animal’s body position, etc., and that behavior (or criteria) will not change in any way until it is time to raise criteria

Criteria and rate of reinforcement are very closely linked. When you raise criteria, rate of reinforcement goes down; as the animal learns the behavior the rate of reinforcement goes up because the criteria become easier. From the work the Brelands and Baileys did, we know that the optimum time to raise criteria is when the animal is 80% compliant at the current criteria. Your goal, when raising criteria, is for the animal to be 80% compliant in the next set of trials.

By way of example, let’s say you are training a dog to do a swing finish. Knowing that you want to fade any lure as quickly as possible, you decide to lure the dog from front to heel position twice; thereafter, your hand movement will be the antecedent and you will shape correct position by systematically setting and raising criteria.

The diagram below shows the positions you have opted to shape. It may be that your dog gives you a behavior that is closer to the final goal than you originally plan – that’s great! Take it and run with it; however, remember that it should be achievable and the dog should have 80% compliance in the first set. If, for instance, the behavior your dog gives in a 5-trial set corresponds to the diagrams below as follows:

Trial 1: Criteria 5
Trial 2: Criteria 2
Trial 3: Criteria 2
Trial 4: Criteria 3
Trial 5: Criteria 1

You should consider the criteria for that trial to be Criteria 2, as that’s the criteria the dog met 80% of the time. This will give you a starting point – since this was the first set with a new behavior, I would do one more set at Criteria 2 and then raise it to Criteria 3 if I got 80% compliance during the second set at Criteria 2.

The most efficient trainers keep records; however, I know it’s like pulling teeth to get trainers to do that! So, there are some ways to improve your efficiency without over-burdening yourself with record keeping.

Know your criteria! Most people, trainers included, can’t precisely describe their criteria – they can tell you the end goal, but not the current goal. If you don’t know what the criteria is, how can you expect the dog to know? Anyone who’s been to chicken camp knows that dogs are very forgiving – they learn in spite of us! Be very specific about what you want and train one criteria at a time.

To measure compliance, count out 5 or 10 treats (depending on if you’re doing a 5-trial or 10-trial set); when you give the cue, if the dog performs the behavior they are given a treat as reinforcement; if they fail to perform the behavior, take a treat and set it aside. At the end of your set, count how many treats are left, and you can then calculate your successful trials based on the number of treats you have left. I.e., if you do a 5-trial set and have 2 treats left, 5-2=3 or, 60% compliance.

To measure rate of frequency, determine your criteria, including latency (i.e., a quick count to 3, or a 1-1000, 2-1000 count to 3) count out 100 treats, set a timer and begin cuing the behavior, reinforcing all successful trials. At the end, count how many treats you have left and subtract from the number you started with. That is the number of correct trials done in that period of time. Remember, when doing this type of measurement your movements need to be as efficient as possible – if you fumble or dilly-dally, you’ll bring down the dog’s rate of frequency.

Use a recorder (audio or video) to keep your training log. Record the criteria you are using – distance, duration, handler orientation, latency, motivation, distraction, etc. and at the end of the training session, record the dog’s current performance. This will keep you on track – you can transcribe the records at the end of the day, or just go back and listen to determine your starting point for the next day.

How Do You Enable Clients to Use Rate of Reinforcement?

Years ago Jean Donaldson did a study on why, when training a behavior, professional trainers (of any methodology) got better results than owners and it all revolved around rate of reinforcement – she discovered that trainers give 3 times as much feedback as owners (feedback might be verbal or physical, but it was feedback).

I believe that the reason owners have such a hard time getting their dogs’ attention is because the dogs are not used to being reinforced by their owners. I look at my dog (who’s not perfect by any means, but he does pay attention to me), and it’s plain to see that this dog has been generously reinforced throughout his life – any trainer would spot it immediately.

We need to teach our clients about this topic. If they come out of class knowing nothing else, understanding the importance of rate of reinforcement will stand them in good stead. Create simple measurement forms – remember, all you really have to measure is rate of frequency; buy a box of golf pencils, do timed drills. Give them the physical evidence that rate of reinforcement increases attention and performance, no matter what the behavior. We get very caught up in training specific behaviors, but what we really need is to teach owners to pay attention and reinforce their dogs.

One of the things I try to get owners to do is set themselves up to reinforce their dogs more routinely. I suggest they get small, decorative bowls, fill them with dry treats or kibble and place them strategically around their house – i.e., on the bathroom counter, dresser, bookshelves, kitchen counter, etc.; go to a gardening store and get a wall sconce to put by the front door and other strategic locations around the house; carry freeze-dried treats in the car; stick treats in their pocket every morning; and – above all – buy and use a bait bag! If they do this, they have set themselves up to be high rate of reinforcers.

We then need to help them notice those reinforceable moments. It’s not easy and I fear that most of them let it slide once class is over, but some get it and they have attentive dogs. Those clients are the ones trainers live for!

Goals for Trainers

If you want to become a professional dog trainer or are working to become a certified dog trainer, or if you are looking for a school for dog trainers, this is a crucial concept that you should keep in mind.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.