Setting Reinforcement Schedules with Your Dog

In marker training, it is important to understand what reinforcement schedules are and why we must implement them. Our end goal is to get our dog on a random reinforcement schedule and to remain that way for the rest of their life.

There are several ways of rewarding our dogs:

  1. Continuous Reinforcement
  2. Variable Reinforcement
  3. Random Reinforcement

Understanding what each of these categories are and then knowing when to apply them is important.

Continuous Reinforcement

Continuous reinforcement means that the dog gets rewarded every time it performs a behavior we ask. There are things that influence continuous reinforcement, like how hungry a dog is, if the food reward is of high value to the dog, etc. There is also a limited number of rewards that can be given during training before the dog is no longer hungry. When that happens, the food reward is no longer motivating to the dog.

It’s always recommended to start with food rewards over toy rewards because most puppies have food drive before they have play drive. Also, we can give far more food rewards in a training session than we can toy rewards. In addition, the dog must understand the rules of play before toys can be used. It can get complicated trying to teach your dog new commands with a toy as the reward.

Variable Reinforcement

The term variable reinforcement refers to how many pieces of food we will give in a reward event. By that, we mean in the beginning that we may give 1 piece of food as a reward, then the next time we might reward 3 pieces, then 2 pieces. It is always a random amount. The purpose for this is to keep the dog guessing and engaged so it never knows when the reward event is finished.

We use variable reinforcement to stop the dog from checking out after it thinks the event is over. We see dogs checking out when trainers only give one food reward. Some dogs simply aren’t motivated enough with 1 treat. So when we offer up a random amount, they soon start to learn that, “Hey! Maybe this next time I’ll get 3 treats instead of just 1!”

Trainers can start using variable rewards as soon as they have finished charge the mark training. Variable rewards encompass both continuous and random reinforcement schedules.

Random Reinforcement

When the dog is ready, we will wean him or her from continuous reinforcement by going to a random reinforcement schedule. In this phase, the dog is not rewarded every time it performs a behavior. Rather it is rewarded on a random schedule.

We start our training sessions by rewarding the first time and then skipping a reward on the next behavior, then reward the dog again on the third time, then the fourth time, then the fifth, then the eigth and so on. During this schedule, we can also use variable reinforcement by rewarding a random amount of treats. This will keep our dog on their toes, anticipating a jackpot.

Our long-term goal is to be reach this random reinforcement schedule. Being random is hard for people to do. We are creatures of habit and our dogs are masters at reading our body language, our behavior, and figuring out our patterns. But with some practice, you will soon get the hang of random reinforcement and it will work out better for you in the long run. Your dog won’t ‘forget’ commands.

When Should I Start Random Reinforcement?

When to start random rewards can be hard for new trainers to figure out. Our end goal is to to make our dog frustrated when it doesn’t get a reward. Frustration builds motivation and drive, so the next time, it tries harder.

However, a problem occurs if the dog is moved off continuous rewards to random rewards too soon. When that happens it loses the drive to work. They think “No reward is coming, why bother?”

There will always be a slight dip in performance when dogs go to a random reward schedule. In the beginning, if the reward is only given every other time, the dip in performance is temporary. But if the dogs are moved to random too soon, the willingness to work goes away. If that happens, the solution is to go back on continuous rewards for a while and try later.

The caveat to this is when dogs are left on a continuous reward program too long that dip in motivation goes away for longer periods of time. In other words, the dogs simply lose motivation to comply because they have had the reward every time for so long and now it’s gone, so they think “the heck with it” and they stop working.

You can see that it can be a little difficult but the more you work with your dog, the more you’ll understand what motivates him and what doesn’t. With time and practice, you’ll get the hang of things. I recommend keeping a diary or even video recording your training sessions with your phone. You can learn a lot from your own physical cues.

Using a reinforcement schedule is only the beginning of training your dog. In different environments, your dog may act differently due to distractions. We need to implement a correction phase. If you want to learn how to use a toy as a reward, we have an entire online course dedicated to playing tug. Alaska Dog Works covers a variety of dog training topics for the new beginner to the advanced veteran. 


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