S is for Secondary Reinforcement

SS was actually a really hard one to post about. There are SO many terms starting with the letter S! I suppose after this challenge is done, I could come back and revisit the S category.

For today, I shall talk about secondary reinforcement. We’ve already discussed what a primary reinforcer is. Unlike a primary reinforcer, an animal sometimes has to learn that a secondary reinforcer is just as reinforcing. A secondary reinforcer is anything that is not a food item.

I’ll use an example with people who work with dolphins for a living. If you’ve ever been to a dolphin show, you may have seen many of these secondary reinforcers being used.

  • petting or scratching the dolphin’s skin
  • rubbing the dolphin’s tongue
  • spraying a hose into its mouth or on its body
  • feeding it ice cubes
  • offering it the chance to do a very simple behavior in order to get additional rewards

There are many secondary reinforcers out there. Including giving an animal a toy to play with.

Why are secondary reinforcers important? Because animals will get bored with the same reinforcement over and over again and also, sometimes you just won’t have food with you, so it is very handy to be able to reinforce your animal without food. As an example, when out with your dog, if your dog can consider praise and pets from you, a great substitute when treats aren’t handy, you can reinforce a behavior just as well. Sometimes, an animal has to be taught that a secondary reinforcement is a great reinforcer. You can do this by pairing a primary reinforcer (food) with a secondary reinforcer (petting). Eventually, the animal will associate petting as being a very good thing.

Behaviors can also be a secondary reinforcer. As an example, when your animal learns a routine, with several steps to accomplish in order to complete the full behavior, each step is a reinforcer to the next one. Completing step one, becomes a reinforcer, because it allows the animal to move on to step two and so on and so forth. Until the final jackpot reward is presented for the entire behavior.

You are not limited to secondary reinforcers. They can be anything you can come up with that your animal will find reinforcing. If they don’t find something particularly reinforcing, you can make it such by pairing it with a primary reinforcer. Let’s say your dog loves getting in the water. Well, that can be a secondary reinforcer. You can have a brief training session with your dog near water and when you feel its time for your dog to play, release it to go jump into the water. The dog will be just as happy and you didn’t need to reward it with a piece of food.

© Semi Charmed Life

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge


15 thoughts on “S is for Secondary Reinforcement

  1. I think there are many people out there who have pets who should first have learned about many of the terms you have discussed for this blogging challenge before they actually owned a pet.

    Rebel xox

  2. I agree with Rebel about pet owners being trained!

    I can’t walk across our park without a dog running up and barking at me, ignoring their owner shouting at them. And then they say, “don’t worry, he won’t bite.”

    And that really, really, really winds me up … they have just demonstrated they have zero control of their animal, they have no idea about my history and that I am really uncomfortable around dogs (historical thing) but also these animals are descended from wolves, and utterly wild, and they have shown that they haven’t trained it.

    Please train the dog trainers! 😉

    • that’s the key to dog training really. A dog trainer rarely trains a dog… we dedicate our time to training the owner. They need to understand how to communicate with the dog and what needs a dog has.

  3. My dog Freya is incredibly treat driven, which is good because I’ve been able to teach her all kinds of things quickly and easily (she’s by far the smartest dog I’ve ever had) but I’ve never been able to get her interested in secondary reinforcements. My other dog is perfectly happy to perform for a scratch behind the ears or cooing praise, but if Freya doesn’t smell a treat in the vicinity, all she does is look at me like, “B*tch, please.” It’s both frustrating and hilarious.

    Hope you’re having fun with the A to Z challenge,

    • There’s nothing wrong with an animal being primarily driven by food reinforcement. There are many species of animals that absolutely work that way. As an example, large carnivores. Animals are all individuals. Some will work for certain things, while others will not. It just comes down to seeing what works best for your own animal.

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