It's a really awesome time to be a dog trainer. There's so much new information coming out to improve not only behavior and training but also our relationship with dogs. Ken Ramirez isn't just a dog trainer. He's the executive vice-president of animal collections and animal training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He's in charge of about 3,200 animals (and people think I have a lot of critters), and he's trained not only marine mammals, but also snapping turtles, sharks, and komodo dragons. Ken says learning principles are the same across all species. "You can train a Harvard graduate the same way you teach an earthworm," Ken tells us.
Well, he should know.
On Sunday, Ken started by talking to us about two types of reinforces: primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer is "inherently reinforcing" like food, water, or sex. Ken also puts the "drives" into this category, so play, prey, social interaction, and so on. However, he adds that while the drives themselves are primary reinforcers, but the object of the drive must be learned.
Okay, take play drive: your dog has a natural desire to play. But he or she has to learn to play with a toy - the object of the drive. I personally think that play drive is fascinating all in itself. Play in predators is usually practice for hunting. So the same behaviors you see in prey drive tend to come out in play. Hunting in wolves is broken down into six parts: orient -> eye -> stalk -> chase -> grab-bite -> kill-bite (Coppinger, Dogs). Selective breeding of dogs has created exaggerations in the hunting pattern. Border collies, for example, have been bred with an exaggerated eye and stalk but little to no kill-bite. By knowing which of your dog's hunting behaviors have been exaggerated (note I said "your dog" not "your dog's breed"), you can better pick out an effective toy for training and engaging play drive.
So, let's look at Rubi. She a terrier, so you'd think grab-bite would be a big one for her. She does love to play tug, but more than that, she loves to chase. Squirrels, anyone? She'll drop any tug for the chance to chase her big red ball. Unfortunately, throwing a ball is not the greatest real life reward for training. It works, but once the ball is out of my hands, I have no control of it. Plus we don't always have the space for me to throw a ball.
Here's where Ken's method for teaching secondary reinforcers may come in handy. A secondary reinforcer "acquires its reinforcing value through association with primary reinforcers." So you can teach a dog to enjoy a secondary reinforcer of your choosing by associating it with a primary reinforcer. Ken uses the example of pairing food (primary) with clapping your hands (secondary). But I'd like to try increasing Rubi's desire for a tug toy. This has the benefit of engaging two primary reinforcers: play and food. I feel like this should increase the strength of the secondary reinforcer (aka, the tug toy), but maybe I'm just American and think that more is better.
Anyway, according to Ken's method, we first train the tug by pairing it with food. So, present tug, tug tug, food. This has the advantage of teaching the dog to release the tug - always tricky - by having them drop it to get food. Lather, rinse, repeat through several sessions until the dog lights up when they see the tug. Then ask for a simple, well established behavior, mark the behavior, and tug. Do this a maximum of three times in a training session. Once the dog is working well for for the tug, ask for a harder, well established behavior. Work your way up until you're asking for harder, newer behaviors. Once you've generalized your new tug to all behaviors, then you can start gradually increasing the frequency of use.
The hard part about secondary reinforcers is that, well, they're less reinforcing than the primary reinforcer. This means that you should never use more secondary reinforcers in a training session that primary reinforcers. If you do, your dog will slowly become less motivated to work with you because the reinforcement just isn't there. Ken states a 20/80 ratio of secondary to primary reinforcers is about right. You will also need to regularly pair your secondary reinforcer with a primary reinforcer in order to maintain its strength. Ken also says to avoid using the same secondary reinforcer twice in a row.
So how do you decide what reinforcer is best for you and your dog? Here's the big R again: relationship. Certain rewards are going to more effective in different situations. Knowing and understanding your dog is the best way to figure out what is going to be most motivating for him or her in any environment. Not to mention that secondary reinforcers are useless without a personal history.
For example, "good" is a verbal secondary reinforcer in my house. If Rubi and I passed a dog on a walk, you can bet I wouldn't be telling her "good" - I'd be shoving food in her mouth as fast as she'd take it. But on the same walk, passing the same dog, with Piper Ann, a "good" would more than suffice. But if I were walking someone else's dog, I wouldn't even think of using the word "good"; to that dog, it's just another meaningless word. There's no history there. No real relationship. And relationship as we hear time and time again, is one of the most important parts of having a dog.