Building reinforcers – using classical conditioning to increase the value of food.

Super sciencey (I know sciencey isn’t a word) this time. Dave is an 8 month old Border Collie who comes to me with Andy for weekly training. Because Andy wants to do loads of training (very commendable) with Dave, we need to be able to use numerous thing to reinforce Dave’s good behaviour. Dave loves to chase the ball, but this means we can only resonably expect to reinforce 3-4 behaviours a minute because the ball chasing reinforcer takes time (this then limits the amount of behaviours we can reinforce in a session).

Problems –

1. In the presence of the ball outside, Dave is uninterested in food.
2. Dave is uninterested in kibble indoors when training, especially in the prescence of higher value food.

We are looking to increase the value of the kibble as a reinforcer indoors and the value of the hotdog as a reinforcer outdoors.

Protocol – we click as Dave has any interaction with the kibble in the presence of higher value food reward. Even if he catches it and spits it out, we click and treat the catch.

The catching of the food is also part of the reinforcer, we make this a game in itself.


1. Dave catches kibble and spits it out – click and treat (c/t)
2. Dave catches kibble and eats it – c/t
3. Dave catches 2 kibbles, eats the first and spits the second – c/t
4. Dave catches and eats 2 kibbles – c/t
5. Dave catches 3 kibbles, eats 2 and spits out 1 – c/t
6. Dave catches and eats 3 kibbles – c/t

And so on. By teaching kibble eating as an operant behaviour and reinforcing it, we then increase the likelihood of kibble eating. This way, we are able to use the his daily allowance of kibble for training, something we couldn’t previously do as he wasn’t interested in it during training.

To take it outdoors, we go back to the start, yet replace the kibble with high value food reward and the chicken/hotdog with a chase of the ball.

Eventually, we will be able to use kibble, chicken, hotdog and chasing the ball as reinforcers outside which will allow us to do more work with him in a session as he gets older.

The reasons we are increasing the value of kibble
1. Dave sometimes has a sensitive stomach and too many “treats” can upset his stomach.
2. Dave eats the kibble readily at mealtimes, just not during training.
3. Andy wants to train Dave as a hobby, so we can use Dave’s daily allowance of food as part of it.
4. Dave is fixated on the ball outside and this limits how we can train him, the food will allow us more flexibility.
In the previous week, Andy has been working hard teaching Dave that kibble eating is a “clickable” behaviour.
Dave is now up to eating 25 pieces of kibble in a row from Andy’s hand.
In this video, we are testing to see if Dave will continue to work for kibble even when the chicken/sausage is on the kitchen work top. He wouldn’t previously have done this.
The definition of a reinforcer is anything which increases or maintains the intensity, duration or frequency of the preceding behaviour. As you can see from the video, Dave continues to work for the kibble throughout the training session. We have successfully introduced kibble as a reinforcer.
Last point. At this early stage, we use the kibble to reinforce previously trained behaviours, as seen in the video. As we all get better with this, we will be able to use kibble to reinforce new and less well behaviours.

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