I often tell my clients to comprise a list of their dog’s top 5 reinforcers.  I find that doing so forces people to think beyond just “my dog likes toys” or “my dog likes food” or worse, “my dog isn’t toy/food/fill-in-the-blank motivated.”  I have yet to meet a single dog that wouldn’t work for organ meat, and almost as rare is the dog that won’t chase or at least show interest in a bit of animal fur dangled along the ground like a big cat toy.   Thinking outside the box in terms of motivation is the first step to success in the education of any species.  For instance, I have been training Kelso for the past 8 years and have tried just about everything.  His food top five looks like this: 1) Liver (and I’m sure other organ meats sit here, but they gross me out) 2) Chicken 3) Cheese 4) Meat baby food 5) Hot dogs and other sausagey types.  His toy top five looks somthing like this: 1)Floppy frisbee 2)Anything latex and squeaky 3) Orange bumper 4) Cat toys (anything dangling on a string or stick 5) Anything plush and squeaky.  Knowing what motivates him in such a specific manner has aided me immensely in his education.  He is a willing learner, gives anything I ask of him a good try, and pretty much does what I say, whenever I say it.  This is not because of his sweet and loving demeanor (though he is sweet and loving) it is because of my eventual mastering of what motivates him.  I tried training him with plain old chewie dog treats in the beginning, and certainly at times had success training him at home with kibble pieces, but in times of fear, and in Kelso’s case often fear-related aggression, the proverbial big guns were in order, and to use them I had to find them.  This is why I recommend people figure out what their dog’s “hot reinforcers” are and then utilize them when new or difficult behaviors are being mastered.  If you CAN use kibble, then do it.  But not if your dog is working on something particularly difficult, or when working on something you would like your dog to find valuable in the future (i.e. if you want your dog to be an agility nut, use the hot reinforcers for agility and he will transfer that value to agility). 

The real point of this blog, however, is not about finding a dog’s hot reinforcers or even making them work for you.  I sat down to write today because I realized how valuable it would be for people to identify their own top 5 reinforcers, thanks to one of the many though-provoking conversations I’ve had with a very intelligent business-minded friend of mine.  One of the greatest obstacles to success is often motivation (if you can’t get driven, you’ll never drive to the top!).  If I can’t motivate myself to sit down and write everyday, my book won’t get published.  If I can’t motivate myself to exercise, I won’t get in better shape.  If I can’t motivate myself to continue my education, my career won’t grow.  But in understanding proper science, I understand that it is the instant types of reinforcement that are the most rewarding for all species, and in the end the real reason we get going in the first place.  For instance, I get instant gratification when I read a new book about dog training, or attend a seminar.  Boom, the long term reinforcement is career-building, but the short-term reinforcement is what made it happen.  This is why exercise is so difficult for some people, if the only reason you are doing it is for long-term results, you won’t make yourself do it. It’s that simple.  People who LIKE exercise are the ones who do it and reap the long-term benefits.  I like walking my dogs, so that’s the exercise I partake in whenever I can, but I hate the gym, so don’t have a membership, even though the gym would yield much better long-term results.  Most people are motivated by basics like food, sleep, shelter, affection, and material goods.  Funny I didn’t mention money, that’s because money is what we refer to in animal training as a secondary reinforcer.  It, in and of itself, means nothing, it is what you can buy with it that gives it value.  Money is like a clicker, it means food to the dog, so the dog works hard for the click.  The trouble with people is that they tend to want more complex things than animals do–with animals it’s easy to decide what reinforcers are hot and which ones you can control (usally food and toys).  But people are motivated by power, pride, vengence, security, love, ego, the feelings of others, and a myriad of even more complicated things.  I think it is identifying simple reinforcers that will make changing habits in humans easier.  That’s why making use of that all-important secondary reinforcer (money) is the easiest way to gain control over human beings.  Dogs too are motivated by difficult-to-control reinforcers (sex, freedom, social closeness, and other weird stuff that for some reason makes them tick–flashing lights in the case of Kelso).  They are not unlike humans in this way, we are just able to get the reins on their easier-to-control motivators because they LET us, they don’t bring emotional baggage to the table–they know you’ve got the goods so they work for you.  People on the other hand often become resentful of the person controlling the resources, for whatever reason.  BUT, if you are the controller of your top motivators then you can get yourself motivated–you will become your own boss.  I am motivated by opportunities to spend time with my own dogs, good conversation, microbrews, Indian food, sushi, and new shoes.  These are all things that can be controlled by me.  So, if I do my filing I can drink a beer while doing so.  If I achieve something big, like meeting all of my goals for the week, I can reward myself with a good dinner of sushi or Indian.  If I achieve all of my monthly goals, I can buy a new pair of shoes.  Luckily it doesn’t cost me anything and gains me a great deal to spend time working with my own dogs, so I do it as often as possible.  If I want to go even further and really make a habit change, I can put one of these big reinforcers on a contingency.  I can eat sushi ONLY if I get all curricula, scheduling, phone calls, and household chores done.  I can buy new shoes ONLY if I achieve my writing goals for a month, or several month period.  Now, I’ve done something interesting–I’ve created even more motivation for the reinforcer–if I see a pair of shoes I want I get straight to work earning the right to buy them.  Thinking this way takes practice, and I am no pro at it yet.  But understanding that everyone is obedient to the laws of learning makes habit change quite clear–a real no-brainer.  If I put drinking an ice-cold microbrew at the end of the day contingent on first getting household chores done, I now begin to look forward to the chores instead of dreading them.  That’s called the Premack Principle in psychology–putting a high-probability behavior (drinking a beer) contingent on a low-probability behavior (chores) increases the probability of the once-low-probability behavior (I now do chores more often because I want to drink beer).  A mouthful, but a worthy concept.  

By first deciding what simple things motivate you (stop thinking security, a house in Hawaii, a huge paycheck, or relationships and start thinking food, drinks, shoes) and use them to help you get the tedious tasks done that are required for you to reach those long-term reinforcers.  It will not only improve your life in general, but will improve your understanding of reinforcement and motivation, making you a better educator, whatever the species.

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