What is variable reinforcement and why does it matter? If you are using a schedule of variable reinforcement it means that you are rewarding some of the times your dog responds to your cue but not every time. People may choose to reward only straighter sits or faster recalls to encourage their dog raise the quality of the response. Other people may just reward a behaviour randomly – enough to keep the dog responding to the cue in hopes of hitting the jack pot this time. Similar to the way people play slot machines – you keep putting money in hoping for the payoff.
Variable reinforcement can be helpful if we are looking to reduce how often we reward, but it can come with some challenges. If we make our variable reinforcement schedule too lean – hold out for only the best sit or reward one in ten responses – our dog may no longer respond to our cue, or the quality of the responses may worsen.
What happened? Would you play the slot machine if the odds were so low you knew you were very, very unlikely to win? What if you had to put in $50 bills each time? If the amount of effort your dog needs to put out on a regular basis is much higher than the likelihood of a reward they will stop putting out the effort. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you – it means that they also love squirrels, and the squirrel is running away but they know where to find you.
How do you fix it? You back up. Give the cue only when it is likely your dog will respond the way you want and reward every response. When your dog is responding the way you would like, you can revisit variable reinforcement again – but slower this time! Straighter sits – not only the straightest. 1 in 3 responses, not 1 in 10.
What else can we do? One of the often heard phrases is “but I want my dog to do it because I asked” so how can we make that more likely? Repetition – the more good things happen when your dog responds to you, the more likely your dog is to respond in the future. Take some time and build that history. Gradual introduction of distractions, so that your dog learns how to cope. Life rewards (other things your dog enjoys) after they respond. What a reward is depends on your dog. If your dog doesn’t like it, it is not a reward! It doesn’t matter how much you think they should like it.
Once the toys and cookies are gone, what is left is your relationship. The time you spent together, playing together, being together. But even with a strong relationship, what’s wrong with a thank you bonus now and then?