Measuring the Efficacy of Primary & Second Reinforcers on Behavior Acquisition in Dogs

Principal Investigators: Rachel Gilchrist, Clive D. Wynne & Lisa M. Gunter
Institution:Arizona State University


Dog training dates back centuries, yet few empirical studies have compared different training techniques, specifically those that employ both primary and secondary reinforcers in the acquisition of novel behavior. Practitioners who promote the efficacy of clicker training argue that this technique maintains the animal’s attentiveness and curiosity and thus facilitates acquisition of novel behavior (Pryor, 1999). Unfortunately, evidence for and against these contentions is almost entirely anecdotal.

In a pilot study, we trained dogs in three groups to emit a novel behavior (sit and stay) with 1) the delivery of food alone, 2) a verbal marker with food or 3) a clicker and food. The maximum duration achieved in a set training period was compared across groups. We found that the group receiving only a primary reinforcer reached a higher criterion of training than the group trained to a verbal secondary reinforcer. Performance of the group experiencing a clicker secondary reinforcer was intermediate between the other two groups, and not significantly different from either.

In this proposed project, dogs will be shaped to emit a nose target behavior using the three methods of positive reinforcement training previously described. While our initial study examined the efficacy of these methods for a behavior that was maintained in proximity to the trainer with increasing duration, this follow-up study will investigate a novel behavior at increasing distances from the experimenter.

The results obtained will add scientific evidence to the important question of the most effective way to train dogs to acquire different behaviors.

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