Reward schedules

Last week I talked about routine searching, and one of the things I suggested to help break it if needed was to review your rate of reward. Reward timing is important, and so is how often you reward or don’t, in line with your reward marker.

In training terms, there are three reward (reinforcement) schedules:

  1. Continuous
  2. Fixed interval/ratio
  3. Random/variable

1. Continuous means giving a reward for every repetition of a behaviour. This is needed when the dog or cat is learning a new behaviour, or when you are basically starting again, to refine criteria, on an existing behaviour. It is the best way to learn quickly. I also often recommend a continuous reward schedule for potential emergency commands like “come” – to try ensure the behaviour will occur every time.

2. Fixed interval/ratio means you reward, say, every second time the behaviour is done correctly, or a certain number of repetitions in batches. This can be problematic, because guess what? Dogs can count! Fixed schedules can cause lax or lazy behaviour repetitions in the no-reward component of the cycle OR can cause a break in behaviour as the reward component is anticipated. For example, if you treat for every third sit, the first and second sits may be sloppy as the dog knows no reward is coming. Or, a dog performing a fantastic heel starts to swing out and break the heel every 15 steps, anticipating the toy. Beware of our own internal fixed schedules too – that latter example I saw at a dog training seminar with another trainer, and she had not consciously counted 15 steps, it was an internal instinct she had not even been aware of, but that the dog picked up.

3. Random / variable schedule means that you reward learned behaviours in a random way. You still mark the behaviour (promise the reward), but keep the dog guessing as to when the reward is coming. I do not recommend doing this when a new behaviour is being learned, as it can be confusing. Once the behaviour is learned, keeping the dog or cat guessing can increase motivation to perform as ‘this could be the time’, plus it can add an element of frustration which can boost performance (they try harder to earn the reward). It has to be *genuinely* random – trust me, your dog will pick up patterns and find a fixed schedule if there is one (see #2).

A reminder on rewards! The dog or cat chooses what’s motivating in the context of the environment and complexity of what you’re asking. What is the value of what you’re offering? What is the threshold of that value, before it becomes demotivating? I’ve talked about finding the right motivator before.

Call me, I can help.


Photos, left to right: delicious treats from Darby’s Dog Bakery & Deli, affection rewards for Roxy by Josh Moran BFK9, and, tug toy games for Murrumba by me.

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