Schedules of Reinforcements or “How to Get Rid of the Food”

In learning theory there are several schedules of reinforcement that we can use. A schedule of reinforcement is basically the frequency in which we deliver rewards when the dog performs a behavior. To simplify this we will concentrate on 2 general schedules: fixed schedule of reinforcement and random or variable schedule of reinforcement.

A fixed schedule means that we always reward the dog after the same amount of repetitions of the behavior. For example, on a fixed schedule of 1, we always rewarded the dog after he performs 1 repetition of the behavior and on a fixed schedule of 3, we reward after 3 repetitions of a behavior (for example, we reward after performing 3 sits in a row).

A fixed schedule of 1 is great for the beginning stages of learning when we try to establish a new behavior. However, if we continue this schedule for a long period of time, it can actually work against us. Here is why: if we reward every behavior – once we stop reinforcing, the behavior will be extinct very quickly. This resembles a soft drink machine: this machine is always on a fixed schedule of 1. Every time you put money in it, a soda can pops out. One day, you arrive at a broken machine, you out money in and nothing happens, you try again because you are really thirsty and still nothing happens – you walk away – your behavior is extinct.

This is the reason that after establishing a behavior we need to change our schedule of reinforcement to a variable or random schedule. On this schedule, the dog never knows when the reward is coming. It can come after repeating the behavior twice, 4 times, 1 time, 6 times, 3 times, etc. We start transferring to this variable schedule very gradually or we risk the extinction of the behavior. We start by asking 2 behaviors for 1 click and treat. For example, we ask for the dog to sit, we don’t click but rather we take a step back, get him/her to walk towards us and ask for a sit again – now we click and treat. Right after that, we ask for another sit and click and treat immediately. Then, we might ask for 3 sits before we click and treat and right after that only 1 sit, and then 2 sits, etc.

This variable schedule is similar to a slot machine’s schedule. A slot machine works on a variable or random schedule of reinforcement. The gambler never knows when he/she will be rewarded but it can happen any time after he/she pulls the handle. The reinforcement varies in the amount of money given and in the frequency of the delivery of the money. Hence, one always wants to pull the handle again since there is always a chance that reinforcement will appear.

Your job is to become your dog’s slot machine and make him/her want to engage in a behavior time after time simply because there is always a chance for being rewarded.

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