Remember that fantastically foul candy which made a better punisher than reinforcer? Pretty aversive stuff, would have wrecked a good training plan. But have you seen a highly-desired treat fail to reinforce as well?
Tonight I came home late and the dogs were quite sharp in their observation that dinner time was long past. I apologized as I went to the fridge to pull out — oh no! No dog food!
We feed raw, pulling a fresh supply from the freezer as we go. But last night my dear husband had forgotten to replenish, and I had only enough food for one dog. It would have been possible to fetch another chub and thaw it, but I was already late for serving dinner, and it didn’t seem worth the effort. What the heck, we can all drive through McDonald’s once in a while…. I took down a bag of junky kibble I’d purchased for another purpose and filled up two new Kong Wobblers.
Inky would get the bowl of raw. My Dobermans adore puzzle toys. I’d purchased the Kong Wobblers as a sort of experiment at ClickerExpo* this year, and I’d used them only once before. But I know my Dobes adore puzzle toys in general. Shakespeare has even been known to ignore bits of food I dropped while loading a toy, waiting for the toy itself because it was more fun to work out the food than to eat it for free. (Hey, that’s observed in laboratory research, too — stuff is cooler if you earn it.)
So I filled Inky’s bowl and the two Wobblers, and then I filched a bit of raw to reward Laev (she had a large abscess, possibly from a spider bite — yes, it’s been a rough spring!). She took her pills and I gave her the sliver of raw. Then I set down all three dinners in the usual places, and then I verbally released the dogs.
Inky shuffled to her bowl. Shakespeare fairly flew to his Wobbler. Laev exploded forward in her usual fashion and pounced on the Wobbler — and then she hesitated. She took a couple steps toward Inky, then turned to look at Shakespeare, and then looked back at her Wobbler. I told her to go ahead, and she looked at me, a bit confused. Then she turned back to the Wobbler and, with an invisible shrug, set on it with glee.
Now, I know darned well that Laev loves puzzles, that she knows how to operate a Kong Wobbler, and that she enjoys cheap nasty carbs like I enjoy Twix bars. Once started, she attacked that kibble like Cookie Monster set loose in the Keebler Tree — not the new, watered-down “cookies are a sometimes-food” Cookie Monster, but the original, proper, go-berserk-and-stuff-himself Cookie Monster. So why had she hesitated when I released her to her dinner?
Laev gets a raw diet every day for supper. She could smell raw food on the counter. I had just given her a sliver of raw for taking her pills. She had every reason to believe that she would have a bowl of raw waiting in her usual spot — but it was something else. Yes, it was something delightfully tasty (if less healthy), but it was something unexpected.
Along with the reinforcer testing I mentioned in the previous post, we should be careful to manage our learners’ expectations. I have seen dogs confused by the presentation of a tug toy when they expected treats, or vice versa. Both might be great reinforcers! but that dog was conditioned to expect something else at that moment.
If I had been training Laev, the surprise at encountering the different food might have thrown off her groove, losing momentum. Sure, she liked the other food, but after bobbling for a moment, she might well have lost her train of thought in the shaping process.
Is it a bad thing to change reinforcers? Of course not! Variety is good, for many reasons — including to avoid the risk of getting startled by another reinforcer. I certainly use both food and tugs in training, and many different types of food! And many dogs, in many situations, can swap reinforcers or types of reinforcer on the fly. We just need to keep in mind that surprises aren’t always welcome and can be disruptive. Use variety, but introduce it, test it, and watch its effects.