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Conditioned Reinforcers in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

A whistle can become a strong conditioned reinforcer.

A whistle can become a strong conditioned reinforcer.

What Are They?

You may have never heard about conditioned reinforcers, but more likely than not, you deal with them on a frequent basis in your day-to-day interactions with your dog. You don't need to have a degree in behavioral science to understand the concept as I will explain it in the next paragraphs in layman's terms and with examples.

For starters, it's important that your dog recognizes the difference between primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers.

Primary Reinforcers

Primary reinforcers (also known as unconditioned reinforcers) encompass anything your dog doesn't need to learn to love, as he's programmed by nature to like and depend on it already. They satisfy a dog's biological desire. Animals and people have needs that need to be fulfilled in order for them to survive, live well, and procreate.

Examples of unconditioned reinforcers: Your dog is by nature attracted to water, food, play, exercise, and shelter, to name a few, and nobody taught him that. This appreciation is hard-wired in all dogs.

Secondary or Conditioned Reinforcers

Secondary reinforcers, (also known as conditioned reinforcers) are all things that are normally neutral but, through experience, your dog has learned to appreciate them, mainly because they have been associated with a primary reinforcer either intentionally or unintentionally.

Examples of conditioned reinforcers: So your dog may love the noise of the can opener (because he has learned to associate it with his favorite food) or may get all excited when he sees a leash (because he associates it with a primary need—exercise). Need a human example? Money. Money in its most simple form is ultimately just paper that would have no meaning if it wasn't associated with our primary need to buy food, clothes to keep us warm and homes to have as shelters.

Ivan Pavlov and Conditioning (Pavlov's Dogs)

The best example of the establishment of a conditioned reinforcer in dogs is provided by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov's main mission was really to study the digestive processes in humans by using dogs in his experiments, but he somewhat got sidetracked when he noticed a curious happening unfold right under his eyes.

As he was studying the role of saliva in the digestive process by looking at the abundant flow of saliva emitted by the dogs upon noticing food offered by his scientists wearing white lab coats, he soon found out that the dogs started salivating also when food was not in sight.

What was happening? As an attentive researcher, Pavlov soon discovered that the dogs were actually salivating upon being approached by any person wearing a lab coat! So basically, through experience, the dogs learned to associate food with the lab coats. The lab coats, therefore, became a secondary, conditioned reinforcer.

Conditioned vs. Unconditioned

So, to recap, a conditioned reinforcer is basically just another term used to depict a secondary reinforcer. The term "conditioned" simply means "learned," and the term "reinforcer" is something that is reinforcing to the dog.

Secondary reinforcers, therefore owe their effectiveness directly or indirectly to primary reinforcers (Chance, 2008 p 135). In dog training and behavior modification, conditioned reinforcers can help you a lot.

We will see in the next paragraph some examples of conditioned reinforcers, how you can create a strong conditioned reinforcer and how you can use it to your advantage.

I like to keep my favorite silent whistle around my neck.

I like to keep my favorite silent whistle around my neck.

Use Conditioned Reinforcers in Dog Training

Don't assume you have to necessarily attend dog training classes to put a conditioned reinforcer to good use. Most likely, if you are telling your dog "good boy" every time he does something he likes followed by a treat or a game of tug, you are already using conditioned reinforcers without being aware of it!

Yet, consider that it's ultimately up to a dog's individual preferences to determine if rewards are reinforcing enough to create a conditioned response. Some dogs could care less about kibble and may require higher-value treats. Let's take a look at some examples of conditioned reinforcers that are used in dog training.

  • Praise. Saying "Good boy" or any other form of praise followed by a treat right afterward or a round of tug causes it to generally become a conditioned reinforcer.
  • Using a clicker. If you are using a clicker and it's always followed by a treat, the noise of the click will soon become a conditioned reinforcer.
  • Dog whistles. Just as a clicker, a dog whistle can be charged and allowed to become a conditioned reinforcer that signals great things happening. I used them often for recalls.
  • Saying your dog's name. Some of the strongest recalls are powerful because they have become conditioned reinforcers. If you call your dog every time when it's mealtime, his name will become music to his ears and he'll come running in anticipation of his meal.
  • Dog toys. If you like playing fetch with your dog, the toy used has become a conditioned reinforcer signaling that a fun game is coming. Have you ever seen that look of anticipation in your dog's eyes as you grab that worn tennis ball he so loves?

How to Create a Conditioned Reinforcer

It's not that hard! All it takes is several repetitions and observation of a dog's behavior to create a conditioned response. Following is an example of how to turn a clicker into a conditioned reinforcer.

To your dog's eyes, a whistle on its own is pretty much neutral. Your dog doesn't need a whistle and he has lived his whole life without one . . . until you give it a meaning.

Here is how to charge a clicker or any other thing you want to power up.

  • Have your dog sit in front of you.
  • Next, click the clicker and give a treat.
  • Repeat several times.
  • You know your clicker has become a conditioned reinforcer when you notice a conditioned response, meaning that your dog will automatically look for a treat the moment you click.
  • Now the click has become a cue that a treat is coming and you can start using your clicker to mark behaviors you like so they repeat.

Use Conditioned Reinforcers for Behavior Modification

Conditioned reinforcers can be used as well in behavior modification. Say a dog is fearful of men wearing hats. With time, men wearing hats can become conditioned reinforcers signaling that a treat is coming.

To learn more about how to accomplish something like this, read my article on LAT Look at That, a training method crafted by Leslie McDevitt. Time after time, you will notice a conditioned emotional response at the sight of men that will replace the previous emotional fearful response.

About a year ago, I was called for a case of a fearful dog who used to cower any time a stranger tried to pet him. The more people tried to pet him, the more he cowered. His fear was getting worse.

I decided to make human hands a conditioned reinforcer signaling that good things happen. So I told guests to not force the dog to interact. Instead, I told them to casually lower their hands and drop a treat.

After several weeks of this training, the dog started learning that hands made good things happen. Instead of cowering and acting defensively now instead he looked at hands as sources of treats. He even managed to sniff the hand one day in hopes of a treat falling from it.

We then progressed and taught him how to target hands to help him boost his confidence, take initiative and learn that interacting with hands is rewarding. He now is more confident and when guests come over he readily comes to target their hands in search of goodies.

What About Conditioned Punishers?

Consider that the above are mostly positive conditioned reinforcers, meaning that dogs have associated certain stimuli with positive things.

There are also negative conditioned punishers, where the dog is conditioned to associate a certain previously neutral stimulus with some negative event. My training philosophy is based on creating only positive conditioned reinforcers, however.

Making Reinforcers as Effective as Possible

As seen, conditioned reinforcers don't just happen overnight. Rather, it takes some conditioning (learning) and repetition for them to become effective.

There are certain rules you need to follow or you risk losing that potency over time. Following are some guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Build a Strong Connection

Make sure you invest some time in creating a strong conditioned reinforcer. Don't cut corners. It's time well spent waiting for a reliable conditioned response. I know some clicker trainers who skip charging the clicker and go straight to asking for operant behavior.

I personally like to charge it so it has a strong meaning and the dog is happy and excited to play the "clicker game." There are some dogs who don't find the clicker to be neutral. Rather, some find the noise intimidating.

Discovering this early in the charging phase gives you the opportunity to make adjustments without putting a dent in the shaping process.

2. Keep it Vibrant!

Conditioned reinforcers are prone to extinction if you fail to pair them with primary reinforcers for a certain amount of time.

This means that, according to studies at the University of North Texas, if you stop giving treats after the click when you are clicker training, the dog may at some point perceive the click as irrelevant.

Once "you take away his motivation for listening, then the clicker is nothing but a tin noisemaker." explains Melissa Alexander on Karen Pryor's Clicker Training website.

An example with humans. You are in love and every time your phone rings at 8 PM you know it's your lover so you get heart palpitations and that typical happy sensation of when you are in love. After a month, you break up.

The phone rings at 8 PM and you still get that excited sensation even though you know your lover no longer calls.

It takes a bit, but soon you start accepting that your lover will never call again, and that happy sensation starts fading away. So to keep that conditioned reinforcer alive, make sure you fuel the fire or you'll end up with extinction!

3. Go for High-Value

To keep your dog motivated, use high-value rewards. Find what reward your dog likes best. In most cases it's food, but there are some dogs who prefer to play rather than food. If your conditioned reinforcer doesn't seem strong as you wish, evaluate if perhaps the reward isn't reinforcing enough.

As seen, a conditioned reinforcer can help you attain many things in both training and behavior modification.

Dogs weren't born to like clickers, whistles, and praise, but with our help, we can develop communicative means that are very powerful and effective.

Alexadry© All rights reserved, do not copy

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 13, 2013:

Thanks for the votes up and share, epbooks. I am a big fan of anything classical-conditioning related because it validates a dog's emotions and can change behavior through force-free techniques. Happy to hear you have these techniques with success. Have a great week-end!

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 13, 2013:

Another great article! Fantastic advice. These ideas worked on the dogs we had adopted with various issues that you had. Voted up and shared!