Reward vs Reinforcer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Reward vs Reinforcer

is there a difference?

By Donna D. Savoie, ACDBC | CPDT-KA | CBATI

In training, we use the word reward or the word reinforcer and we nearly always use them interchangeably and synonymously. But they are not always synonymous. Certainly sometimes they are but often times they are not, and often enough to make it a discussion point.

A reinforcer, by definition, is a consequence that comes immediately after behavior AND strengthens that behavior. 

In dog training, we use food rewards or toys or love and praise or access to something the dog wants in the moment; all in an effort to communicate to the dog that a job was done well or that a behavior was done correctly and timely. We hope and actually expect that when we reward the dog that the behavior we rewarded will, at some point, be repeated. Trainers are always saying “behavior that is rewarded is behavior that will be repeated” but really the saying should be “behavior that is adequately reinforced is behavior that will be repeated or strengthened”.

The job of the food reward or toy or love and praise is to reinforce or make stronger that behavior for which the reward was given. We expect that a properly delivered reward will make the desired behavior faster stronger more reliable.

But! Depending on what you might be working on, and the environment that you might be working in, the food reward or toy or praise that you offer as a consequence for the desired behavior may not be what the dog really wants, may not be what the dog is trying to achieve and may not reinforce the desired behavior. If the desired behavior is not getting better stronger faster more reliable, then it is necessary to assess what is being used to reinforce said behavior. Loose leash walking in an outdoor environment is an excellent example of the difference between rewarding and actually reinforcing desired behavior. Many dogs while out in the great outdoors are not really inclined to walk at your human pace and only several inches from you. What they really really want is to explore, to go forward, to see what is there, to be adventurous. So in order to train leash walking in an outdoor environment one must assess what the dog truly wants. It is true that the dog may take your wonderful food treat, and he may accept love and praise happily, but what he really wants and needs and is trying to achieve is to move forward and explore. Training Loose leash walking can be an excellent example of the difference between rewarding behavior and reinforcing behavior. For those dogs who are uber food motivated and food is the only thing in the world to them, then food may actually reinforce the behavior of walking closely to the human and maintaining a loose leash. But for those dogs who are adventurous, what they really want is to explore. By assessing what your dog really wants and needs and providing that in exchange for the desired behavior (and in this example desired behavior would be maintaining a loose leash) then learning will happen and loose leash walking will progress. If the leash is tight, do not move forward, once the dog moves his body such that the leash is loose, mark that with a click or the word yes and move to something the dog will enjoy (sniffing a tree maybe). In this example, just like delivering a food reward in a timely manner, moving forward in a timely manner and not moving in a timely manner is crucial. Does this example mean you can’t use food to train loose leash walking outside? Nope. But it does mean that in many cases the dog really really just wants to go forward toward something, and going forward actually reinforces the loose leash. Does this mean we stand still, while the dog is straining and getting frustrated? Nope, this could be a good opportunity to use food or toys or love and praise to motivate the dog and use the forward movement toward a place to sniff to reinforce the dog.

In another example, perhaps a dog who is uncomfortable in the presence of another dog, may take your food treat but if what he really wants is to be away from the other dog then the food treat will not affect behavior change. (Classical conditioning work to change emotional response is a separate discussion). Moving away from the other dog as a reward for quiet behavior will reinforce quiet behavior and affect behavior change if that is, in fact, what the dog is trying to achieve.

Or maybe a scaredy dog who is hiding from you under the chair gets brave and comes out; then you leave the room.  That could reinforce that bravery, would you think of you leaving the room as a reward?

Sound confusing? It’s not.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word “reward” as “something that is given in return for good…”

and defines the word “reinforce” as “to strengthen by additional assistance, material, or support…”

By assessing the environment and situation and certainly by knowing your dog you can adequately reward behavior and reinforce behavior simultaneously. But it is important to know that you can reward behavior and not be reinforcing behavior and without making stronger that behavior.

How is this applicable to basic training? How is this applicable to any training?

By understanding the difference between reward and reinforcer you can assess why progress is slow or nil, you can ensure efficient and effective training, you can be a better teacher.

Understanding the difference between rewarding and reinforcing can mean planning ahead for training. Using the example of a dog who is absolutely beyond happy and excited when company comes to the home for instance. What does the dog want? If he’s friendly he may want pets and play and fun with the guest. Break that down in no particular order: 1) Pets 2) Play 3) Fun. How could you insure any of those 3 items before the dog jumps on your guest? Throw a Ball for Play, throw food for fun, then the guest gives pets for 4 on the floor. If you throw a ball or throw food BEFORE the dog’s feet come up, you could be adequately reinforcing 4 on the floor or at the very least facilitating 4 on the floor so the guest can pet and thus reinforce 4 on the floor. Running for the ball and hunting for treats is exciting! Be prepared to toss a few things a few times, after a few times you should be able to get your dog’s attention, get a “sit” and your guest can then pet your dog and play with him for fun! If, on the other hand, you simply hand your dog one or two yummy food treats, that could likely not be what the dog is trying to achieve.

Following along now?

Every time you work with your dog toward a goal, think:
Am I adequately reinforcing with my reward? and
– What does my dog really want in this moment?