There is no free lunch in animal training. Healthy animals won’t do something for nothing. Some people are very disappointed by this, or engage in unhelpful denial contortions, most often when the species happens to be dogs.
So what about behaviors that go and go like perpetual motion machines? Understanding what’s actually going on in such scenarios requires us to examine the too-sharp distinction between behaviors and reinforcers, which, while useful in a functional analysis, misses the Premackian point: what we call reinforcers are in fact just preferred behaviors.
Sitting and staying still and coming when called are all behaviors, but so are eating and drinking and playing. Preferred behaviors have the sensational ability to boost less preferred behaviors provided the contingency is made apparent to the animal: “You must do X units of less preferred behavior in order to have the opportunity to do Y units of preferred behavior.” As b-mod shorthand, we call the most preferred behaviors “reinforcers” (for example, we say “food” rather than “eating”) and we call making the contingency clear “training.” A student of mine a long time ago said, “so what you’re saying is it’s all Premack.” Yes. It’s all Premack.
Three behaviors have immutable high preference among living animals: eating, drinking and sex. (You could also say, as many trainers do, that they are “self-reinforcing” behaviors.) They all have refractory periods, i.e. they wax and wane depending on how recently the animal was able to do them, but they are uniformly motivating. Animals not motivated by food or water die within days (water) or weeks (food). The genes associated with animals unmotivated by sex tend to not get themselves passed on very well.
Other strong preferences vary individual by individual (and in dogs, breed by breed). For instance, for some dogs, fetch is a preferred behavior. They do it “for free.” Border collies herd sheep “for free.” Terriers play tug “for free.” And so on. I read books about the English monarchy and watch Yankees games “for free” too. And I would pay to do these behaviors with non-preferred behavior. I know many people who would need payment in the form of one of their own preferred behaviors in order for them to watch a unit of baseball. This doesn’t make them – or me – morally inferior or superior, or harder to train. However it would be idiotic to try motivating any of us with a non-preferred behavior. Or to wait for non-preferred behavior freebies.
Voodoo trainers mangle all this. They feel entitled to a free – or deeply discounted – lunch in the form of massive amounts of non-preferred behavior, and mistake dogs doing certain preferred behaviors “for free” as evidence the dog is motivated by praise doled out when the dog does the self-reinforcing behavior.
You won’t come across this error for behaviors like eating and drinking (“He eats because I’m pack leader” or “He drinks water because it pleases me”) but you will see it for behavior that happens to have utilitarian value, such as border collies herding sheep. Because it’s something we find helpful or useful, we make the logical leap that the dog is doing it so that he can be helpful or useful to us, rather than for his own reasons, usually to do with selective breeding. Just as I have been (inadvertently) selectively bred to find watching the New York Yankees reinforcing, border collies have been (deliberately) selectively bred to strongly prefer eye-stalking moving objects. The refinement of herding in border collies – which flanking maneuver to do when, driving stock away from the handler instead of gathering, when to put the brakes on etc. – is achived via a combination of letting the dog continue to eye-stalk if he complies with these cues, and punishment, usually in the form of loud, gruff voices, which for soft dogs like border collies, are a sufficiently aversive P+ to do the trick.
Preferred behaviors are our most precious dog training resource. They are our leverage. They motivate dogs to do the things we would like them to do as well as motivate the replacement behaviors for the myriad things we would like them not to do. As if that weren’t enough, they allow us potent non-violent punishment options in the form of cessation of opportunity to continue them.
Drivey dogs are the cheapest dates as they can be motivated with any combination of fetch, tug and food. But non-drivey dogs are also a cinch as, without exception, they will be strongly motivated by food. One would think there would be universal jubilation that we’ve got this leverage bonanza, and yet so many limp on and on and on in their attempt to duck the lunch check.