Training Talk: Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers

People really like to get their panties in a twist when it comes to using treats when training their pets. It seems as though treats make you a lesser trainer, or that it is somehow insulting that your pet will work for food. This instalment of “Training Talk” will explain why food makes such a great reinforcer during training, as well as looking at other reinforcers we can use and when to use them.

In the first “Training Talk” blog we looked at reinforcement, and how when we reinforce a behaviour that our pet is offering we will see it more often. But how do we reinforce a behaviour? When training our pets we can use what we call either primary reinforcers or secondary reinforcers.

primary reinforcer is something that is essential to our pets survival, and therefore is a very motivating thing to work for. Common primary reinforcers are food, water, air, shelter, and sex. Now personally I’m not into depriving my pets of water or air, nor am I likely to put them out in the hot sun and make them train for the opportunity to get some shelter. I’m definitely not going to offer them any “special favours”, so to speak, for a job well done either. That leaves us with food. All animals eat. In my blog post “Is Your Pet Food Motivated” I look at reasons why your pet might not want to eat during a training session, as well as how to remedy the problem. I recommend you read that post if you feel your pet won’t work for food.

dog treats
An assortment of dog treats

Now, many people who oppose positive reinforcement suggest that for food to be an effective reinforcer you must first deprive your pet of food so they are hungry. It is true that most animals won’t work for food if they’re full, but we don’t need to starve them to train either. I like to use food rewards that are either part of your pets daily ration, or something extra tasty that only comes in a training session.

Secondary reinforcers are things that aren’t essential to survival, but over time and by being paired with a primary reinforcer (like food) have come to be motivating and enjoyable to your pet. Common examples are petting and praise, or a great game with a favourite toy. For many pets these things don’t mean much initially, but over time and when paired with things your dog really enjoys, they come to be reinforcing to your pet.

Secondary reinforcers are not as motivating as primary reinforcers, which is why trainers recommend teaching new behaviours using food rewards. Once that behaviour is learned it is actually to your advantage to start mixing it up with how you reinforce your pet – you would work harder too if a bonus could be just around the corner!

toy play reinforcer
Wilbur loves training for a game of tug!

Take care when training with secondary reinforcers. Remember that reinforcement is an individual thing. If you are offering a pat or praise, make sure you pet is offering the behaviour more often. If not, it is not being reinforced – try something more fun or tastier!

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