Creating New Reinforcers – Kathy Sdao Seminar Pt.1

On September 18th and 19th I made the six hour drive back to Endicott, NY, to attend a weekend long seminar hosted by Clicking with Canines (the school where I completed the Karen Pryor Academy).  This was my first time hearing Kathy Sdao speak in person and with over sixteen hours of lecture, I left with so many new ideas that I’ll have months of blogging content in the hopper to draw from now.

Kathy Sdao
Kathy working with Casey Lomonaco and her celeb Saint puppy Cuba

One of the biggest topics of the seminar was the concept of conditioning new reinforcers.  Big revelation right there for me.  We spend a lot of time conditioning new emotions towards stimuli (i.e. getting a dog over fear) and training new behaviors.  But, how often do we go out of our way to create new things that we can use to reward our dogs?

At When Hounds Fly, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to look for reinforcers they can use to train other than food.  Food has limitations – dogs get full, you can’t always have food with you, and sometimes its not practical to use food (i.e. in evaluations and performances where food is not allowed).  Creating new reinforcers is all about using classical conditioning to transfer the value of one reinforcer (i.e. food) to another (something that is not food?)

Over the weekend we saw many clips of Kathy from her University of Hawaii days working with dolphins.  One reinforcer they conditioned was a hand clap.  In one clip, a dolphin performed a behavior on cue and the handler didn’t feed it a fish, but instead, did a big open air hand clap.  The dolphin saw the handclap and became absolutely giddy with joy!  How awesome is that?

In thinking about how we can apply this with dogs – what if we could condition our dogs to react with joy when we do the following things:

– Praise the dog with a hearty “Good boy!” (assuming your dog is currently not that praise motivated)

– Give the dog a thumbs up

– Wink at the dog

Or,

– Transfer the value of food (from a food motivated dog) into a tug toy (for the same dog that is not toy motivated?)

The process of creating a new conditioned reinforcer is relatively easy!  In fact, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already conditioned the following reinforcers:

– Bringing out the leash (your dog wags his tail and gets giddy)

– Clicking (your dog reacts with joy and looks for their treat)

– Walking towards the entrance of When Hounds Fly (your dog starts going crazy looking for the green door)

How did you condition a leash, a click, or coming to school to produce such strong emotions?  Simple – every time you showed your dog any of those 3 things, something wonderful happened immediately after.  The leash is always followed with a walk.  The click is always followed by a treat.  Going through our entrance is always followed by a ton of food-based training.

My personal training goal is to now condition my dogs to have additional reinforcers.  I’m trying to train Petey to become tug toy crazy.  All I’m going to do now is prepare his dinner (in a bowl) and hide it somewhere like a bookshelf or counter.  Then, I’m going to bring out the tug toy and tug with Petey for 15 seconds and then quickly bring down the food bowl and surprise Petey with dinner.  Just by doing that, I’m going to attempt to transfer the emotional value of dinner to the tug toy.

Similarly, for both Duke and Petey, I’m going to try to condition a “thumbs up” as a conditioned reinforcer.  All I’m going to do is when I click for a behavior I like, I’m going to give a thumbs up first and then feed my dogs.  The emotional value of the food reward should bleed backwards into the thumbs up, and what I’ll be looking for is tailwags and a smile when I give my dogs a thumbs up.

So, my challenge to you is – you’ve trained a lot of useful and cute behaviors in your dog.  What new conditioned reinforcer will you start creating?

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