Differential reinforcement is a technique used in dog training that involves rewarding a desired behavior while ignoring or redirecting an undesirable behavior. This approach is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which suggests that behavior is shaped by its consequences.
In differential reinforcement, the trainer provides positive reinforcement for the behaviors they want to encourage, while withholding reinforcement or redirecting the dog’s attention away from behaviors they want to discourage. This can be a powerful training technique, as it can help to establish good habits and prevent bad ones from taking hold.
Types of Differential Reinforcement:
There are several types of differential reinforcement that can be used in dog training, depending on the specific goals of the training program. These include:
1. Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA): In DRA, the trainer reinforces a behavior that is an acceptable alternative to the unwanted behavior. For example, if a dog is jumping up on people, the trainer may reinforce the dog for sitting politely instead.
2. Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI): In DRI, the trainer reinforces a behavior that is physically incompatible with the unwanted behavior. For example, if a dog is chewing on furniture, the trainer may reinforce the dog for playing with a chew toy instead.
3. Differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior (DRL): In DRL, the trainer reinforces the dog for performing the unwanted behavior at a lower frequency. For example, if a dog is barking excessively, the trainer may reinforce the dog for barking less often.
4. Differential reinforcement of zero rates of behavior (DRO): In DRO, the trainer reinforces the dog for not performing the unwanted behavior at all. For example, if a dog is jumping up on people, the trainer may reinforce the dog for keeping all four paws on the ground.
Note that differential reinforcement is used in conjunction with other positive reinforcement techniques, such as praise, treats, and play. The goal of differential reinforcement is to shape the dog’s behavior in a positive way, not to punish or intimidate them.
Does it always work?
Differential reinforcement in intense cases might not work well if you don’t take care of certain details. To effectively use differential reinforcement in dog behavior training, it’s important to identify the state of mind of your dog and the level of arousal. Redirecting and luring away your dog with a treat or “play toy” is not an effective way of shaping any behavior.
Your dog should be presented to the situation where the unwanted behavior is likely to happen, but always below threshold. Any type of differential reinforcement technique should be performed while your dog is not on a very high arousal or over threshold. For example if your dog is reactive to other dogs, you want to keep your dog calm while reinforcing an acceptable alternate behavior. If you wait until your dog reacts and gets over threshold (red zone) differential reinforcement will not work and will likely make it worse.
Mistakes to avoid
A common mistake when modifying a behavior with differential reinforcement is to praise or reward with a lot of excitement by default. Excitement in most situations is going to send your dog back over threshold or “red zone” if you are not careful. People tend to confuse excitement with good. Excitement is not good or bad. Excitement is in your favor or against you depending on what you are trying to achieve. For example: if your dog is barking excessively or jumping on guests, excitement is against you. In these examples you want your dog to calm down. It’s imperative that you learn how to praise and reward with calmness.
Trainers should also be consistent in their use of reinforcement and provide clear feedback to the dog when they exhibit the desired behavior as well as keeping the dog under threshold or bringing them back under threshold if they start getting out of control.
Differential reinforcement is a powerful technique for shaping a dog’s behavior in a kind way. By rewarding the desired behavior and not letting the unwanted behavior happen, trainers can establish good habits and prevent bad ones from taking hold. This technique can have certain nuances where professional help might be needed. With consistent training dogs can learn to behave in a way that is both desirable and rewarding for everyone involved.
© Gabriel Riesco, Pawmos Dog Training LLC | All Rights Reserved April 2023