I have a love/hate relationship with the rug in the living room. I mean, I love that rug. I love the colors, I love the short pile (it’s not very plush), I love the way it’s divided into neat squares, I love the way it’s the perfect size to fit the room. I love that rug.
That rug and Clover’s hair have this tight relationship that drives me batty. Specifically, every single hair she sheds shows up on the dark colored squares on the rug, and it bugs me. Now, as I said in this post, if I go more than 24 hours between vacuuming, a really gross amount of dog hair and dirt builds up in the rug. If I go 48-72 hours (two or three days) without vacuuming, I start to run into problems. The charge on my little hand-held Dyson only lasts 10-15 minutes. It’s long enough that I can do the whole rug if I’ve kept up on cleaning and can just buzz over the rug quickly, but if I’m playing catch up and I have to go slowly to get all the hair off the rug, the vacuum runs out of charge, and then I have to stop and let it charge for a few hours before I can finish the rug. Then, by that time, Clover has deposited new hair on the parts of the rug I cleaned earlier. So I have to finish cleaning the parts that didn’t get done before the vacuum ran out of charge AND I have to go back and re-do the parts I did earlier.
What does this have to do with dog training?
I don’t really like vacuuming the floor. I don’t hate it or anything, but it’s not a favored activity. I do strongly dislike having to vacuum the floor three times in one day because I needed to let the vacuum recharge a few times to get the entire rug cleaned. That is aversive to me. It is something I dislike enough that I will work to avoid it (by vacuuming the rug every day so that I can get it done quickly). However, the reward — being able to vacuum quickly — is not sufficiently reinforcing to me that I always vacuum the floor every day. Sometimes competing reinforcers (video games) win out, even though I know it means I will have to do more work the next day.
In other words, the reward of vacuuming quickly is not strong enough to maintain fluency for the behavior of vacuuming every day. Over time, my desire for a quick vacuum session will grow less and less until I encounter the aversive of having to vacuum multiple times (and then the behavior of vacuuming quickly will have a burst in response time).
Okay, but what does that have to do with dog training?
The same principles apply to some behaviors we might like in our dogs. Jackson doesn’t love having his nails done, but he will tolerate it because I’ve built up an association between having his nails done and getting liver treats. If I stop paying him in liver treats and start using just praise as a reward for letting me do his nails, he will continue to let me do his nails … for a while. Over time, his dislike for having his nails done will win out over the relatively low value of receiving praise from me. Praise alone is not sufficiently rewarding to maintain fluency of the behaviors I need from him while doing his nails.
To get around this — to be able to use a low value reinforcer most of the time, rather than having to pay him in liver treats every single time I do his nails — I need to put doing his nails on a variable schedule of reinforcement with the high value reinforcer (liver treats). In other words, he has to get liver treats at unpredictable intervals. Some sessions get liver treats, other sessions get just praise. Some sessions get liver treats and praise. This keeps Jackson’s desire to work high, because maybe just maybe this time he will get liver instead of praise. I can’t let the schedule stretch out too thinly though, or I will run into the wall where praise is not sufficiently rewarding to keep Jackson working.
You’ve encountered this behavior outside of dog training. Can you guess where? How about at a casino? Casinos are basically nothing BUT variable schedules of reinforcement. The arrival of the reinforcer (money!) is unpredictable, and it builds a very strong desire to play casino games, because maybe just maybe this time you will win and get money.