Primary and Conditioned Reinforcers

Reinforcers can be primary, or hard-wired, like food or social contact. Practically anything that your dog likes and will work to get is a primary reinforcer. Secondary, or conditioned reinforcers, are reinforcers that your dog (or you, for that matter) has learned to like because of its association with a primary reinforcer. Your paycheck is a perfect example of a secondary or conditioned reinforcer — if you didn't associate it with money in the bank, you wouldn't be so excited to get this otherwise worthless scrap of paper every Friday, would you?

If your dog goes running to the cabinet where you keep the dog biscuits every time you say “cookies,” then you already have a secondary reinforcer. Your dog has connected the conditioned reinforcer “cookies” to a primary reinforcer — food. See, you're training already!

Using a Conditioned Reinforcer

Even before you establish which first behavior you want to encourage, you want to establish a conditioned reinforcer (CR). For training purposes, you want to establish a specific CR so that you can isolate and mark a behavior (or piece of one) for primary reinforcement. It's basically the bridge between the behavior you want and the dog's reward. It lets her know she did something right, and is going to be rewarded for it.

Establish a Conditioned Reinforcer

Establishing a CR is easy. Simply decide what you want your CR to be, and pair it with a primary reinforcer until your dog makes an obvious connection between them. It might take only a few repetitions for some dogs to learn that their CR means good stuff for them, while others may need more practice. Most dogs figure it out in only a few brief sessions of multiple repetitions.

Clickers, which are small plastic and metal noisemakers, are popularly used as CR, but many people use a verbal CR like “Yes!,” “Great!,” Or “Bingo!” The word or sound you use isn't at all important, but using it consistently and correctly is.

To get started, take your dog and some tasty treats somewhere with a low distraction level. You are not asking or expecting anything of your dog at this point. Just click or say your CR, and then give your dog a treat. Repeat 5–10 times per session. This is often called loading or charging the CR. Make sure you use your CR, whatever it is, before you make a move to give your dog a treat.

Remember, your dog is visual, not verbal, and you want your intended CR to tell your dog the treat is coming, not the motion of your hands. When you see your dog visibly startle or respond in a positive way when she hears her CR, it's time to move on and work on specific behaviors!

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