Mouse Hunting, Leash Pulling, Begging at the Table and Intermittent Reinforcement

I admit that intermittent reinforcement has always been a difficult thing for me. I couldn't get myself not to reward the behavior I wanted every time I got it. After all, work should be rewarded, shouldn't it?

Some trainer I am ...

Cookie can hunt for mice for hours every day.

What is intermittent reinforcement?

It simply means rewarding the performed behavior only some of the time. Sometimes a sit gets a treat and sometimes it doesn't. Simple enough. But why would one want to do that and why would it work? Wouldn't it just discourage the dog from working?

When teaching something new, reinforcement should come as quickly as possible and every time the dog does the behavior you want.

This makes them learn faster.

Once the behavior is learned, though, skipping the treat every so often IS actually enforcing the behavior. That sounds very counter-intuitive, doesn't it?

Intermittent reinforcement actually makes the dog respond faster and more reliably. But why?

Some people compare intermittent reinforcement to casino slot machines. The fact that they might spit out some money eventually is what makes them addictive.

Works on people but would such concept work on dogs?

But it already does and has been since ever!

It finally clicked in my brain, watching Cookie mouse hunt.

She can spend hours doing it. Day after day after day. It's what she loves doing most of all things. She doesn't catch one every time. She catches one every now and then. (She'd probably be more successful if she eventually wasn't called off to go home) Her drive is amazing. She'll keep searching, pursuing, digging ... doesn't get tired of that.

Now, hunting is something that comes with the genes. But obviously she doesn't have to hunt to survive; I think it's the greatest entertainment for her.

We inadvertently use intermittent reinforcement all the time, to our disadvantage.

Does your dog pull on the leash? 

Dogs pull on the leash to get to where they want to go and to get there faster. To train a dog not to pull on the leash, the principle is simple - if it doesn't get them to where they want to go, they'll stop doing it.

If it NEVER gets them to where they want to go. Duh!

But SOMETIMES it does, doesn't it? It is difficult to be hundred percent consistent with this, particularly if you're trying to get to the same place they are, just not fast enough. And yes, I'm guilty of this too. Sometimes just there isn't time to keep stopping or turning around if you need to be somewhere. Or is that just an excuse?

But I understand that until I work up to hundred percent consistency in my feedback to my dog, I can't expect them not to keep trying.

Does your dog beg at the table?

Does your dog EVER get a piece of yummy something during dinner time? Even just once in a blue moon? Then they'll keep trying. We actually did get this one worked out. Our dogs get their dessert after we're done eating and never during the meal. And they wait patiently. But the smallest slip and you have a dog begging at the table.

In the kitchen, stuff often "falls of the counter," making the guys very keen on helping.

Does your dog bark for attention?

Do you ever give in because you can't stand it any more? Did that teach your dog not to give up because you'll fold sooner or later, at least sometimes?

Intermittent reinforcement teaches persistence, whether you wanted that or not.

Now, when I finally wrapped my brain around this idea, I better put it to work for ME. What about you?

Related articles:
From The End Of A Lead Line To Casa Jasmine: Meet Cookie, Our New Adoptee
Creative Solutions And An Incidental Product Review
Taming Of The Wild Beast: Cookie's Transition To Civilization  
Staying On Top Of The Ears: Cookie Is Not Impressed  
Who's Training Whom? Stick And Treat 
Observation Skills Of Dogs  
If You Want Your Dog To Do Something, Teach It  
Tricks? It's Not Just About The Tricks 
What Constitutes The Perfect Dog?
Are Dog Training Classes Really For The Dogs?  
Look Where You Want To Go: Finding My Reactive Dog Training Zen Zone? 
Dog Training And Emotions 
Dog Training And Emotions: Postscript
Dogs Love Sentences In Question Form?
Not All Dog Trainers Were Created Equal Either 
A Thought On Separation Anxiety
Happy One-Year Adoptoversary, Cookie!
About Freedom, Trust And Responsibility: A "Pilot Study"
So, We Have A Bear 
About Happiness: What Makes Your Dog Happy? 
Our Example Of The Use Of "Look At That" (LAT) 
Why Do Dogs Dig?
Who Is In The Wrong?
Your Dog Wants To Follow You. You Just Gotta Be Going Some Place
We Still Have Two Dogs: A "Pilot Study" Part Two  
Early Winter Safety: Exploring New Territories
Cookie Is Okay. We ... Might Be, Eventually. (Don't Try This At Home)
One Thing I Love About Winter: I See What They "See" 
Give Your Dog What They Need, Get What You Want
Cookie, The First Of The Great Hunting Rottweilers  
Distance Is a Relative Concept  
Dog Communication: Be Good to Cookie or She'll Tell on You
The Benefit of the Doubt 
Putting The Guilty Dog Look To Rest?
The Stench of Fear: Is There Good and Bad Timing for Vet Visits? 
I am a Helicopter Dog Mom
Routines: Easy Come, Hard to Go
Mosquito Apocalypse 
Things Always Change: Cookie's Hunting Adventures 
The Advantage of Your Dog Not Barking All the Time: Cookie Saves Horses' Asses
"Look at That" (LAT) Game and Barking at Traffic  
The Role of Thresholds in Dog Training and Behavior
Dog Days of Summer: Keeping an Eye on Cookie 
Dog Days of Summer: Cookie Gets Her SprinklerThe Evolution of My View on What Is and Isn't Dirty
Not F***ing Cheerios, That's for Sure
Hi, My Name Is "No", What's Yours?
Dogs, Porcupines, Wasps and Learning

Further reading:
Using Food in Training
Extinction and Intermittent Reinforcement


  1. I do use the intermittent rewarding when we are walking and I ask the dogs to do something. But if they are off-leash, I always reward them for returning when called, as that is so crucial to me.

    The biggest one I struggle with is loose leash walking. I have tried stopping and waiting until the leash is slack, but they just don't seem to get it. They really do much better if I am walking them singly, but together, I could actually be outside for 1/2 an hour and never make any progress.

    1. Yeah, that's a tough one, particularly with two, excited, feeding off each other. I think the only way is to get them to "get it" separately and then they might get it together too. But as long as they ever get to move on with tight leash, the whole work goes down the drain again. Sometimes life gets in a way of a good theory, doesn't it?

  2. I loved your example with the mouse. With Ace, I thought of how he will toss his tennis ball at us. We might ignore him 20 times, but then eventually we toss it for him. He loves this game and will toss his ball at us all day long if we allow it.

    And the begging and pulling ... yep! Could not agree more!

    1. LOL I can just see him tossing the ball :-) Our problem is that our dogs are smarter than we are, aren't they?

  3. Great post and explanation for training. As I was reading I was celebrating some things and cringing, because I need to work on a few more things.

    Our dogs are mousers too and they can do it forever. I sometimes have to physically remove them from a spot to get their attention. They do catch mice, but not often.

    1. As many great trainers say, training dogs is easy. Training people on the other hand, is the hard part. I'm hoping that one day it'll just all click and come into place and it will be smooth sailing from there.

      Hunting does something to the hearing, doesn't it? Once Cookie was pursuing a fresh bunny track; at one point I was standing right beside her and she had no idea I was there, never mind hearing me talking to her.

      Most of the time she does well and recalls from her mouse hunting, with the promise that we'll come back there so she can try to get it later. Somehow she actually does understand that concept :-) But every now and then we too need to actually "walk her" out of there.

  4. Replies
    1. Just comes to show that knowing something and KNOWING something is not the same, is it? :-)

  5. Oh goodness - these are such excellent points! The mouse hunting example is perfect. Ruby is getting where she is pretty reliable with some of her tricks/behaviors, so I've started asking for them when I don't have treats.

    What an amazing list of articles, I am going to have to save this and check them all out!

    Thanks for joining the hop.

    1. Thank you, Lara. It clicked for me when I was watching Cookie mouse hunting :-) The other examples came to me when I was contemplating the topic.

  6. Bentley lives up to being a Basset Hound because he will hound me until he gets his way. LOL! He would chase his laser light 24/7 if given the chance. These are great tips that I need to implement.

    1. Thank you, M.K. Cookie must be a Rotthound. Because she could hunt things 24/7. She's quite patient with other things, doesn't pester for stuff. But when there is a critter, her brain drops.

  7. Great explanation of intermittent reinforcing. Yes, people do this unconsciously all the time (inappropriately...).

    1. Thank you, Amy. Now if we all learned to actually use it to get the behaviors we want ... :-)

  8. This is so true! We are all suckers for doing something because we "might" get the reward we're seeking. Our pets are just like us in that respect. Cats can be trained on this principle as well! It's one of the reasons they are so apt to wake their owners early in the morning.

  9. I find no-pull leash walking one of the most difficult rules to reinforce. Especially for large dogs. It can be exhausting to be consistent but so important not to give in. You will eventually see results.

    1. Cookie can walk really nicely, unless there is something to pursue :-)

  10. I had no problem loose leash walking with my small dogs, but with bigger dogs, it was more often an issue. Distractions, papers or other things to explore over there...the "follow your nose" was more important than "look at your person". But yes, intermittent reinforcement is something I've used over the years intuitively in many situations. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    1. Thank you, Mary. Yeah, "follow your nose" is all important to Cookie.

  11. Funnily enough, I just heard a presentation on this theory today and it made a lot of sense. Sadly I have failed Kilo as I spoil him and I don't keep consistency. It is such hard work. I don't have to worry with my lab and half lab on most things as so obedient and eager to please. This pug is a challenge but a love bug too.

    1. It's important to find a way to spoil the dog and yet give them the structure they need. I struggle with that too.

  12. That random reinforcement works wonders on all species! I know that I have helped my dogs get some bad habits with that. (And my kids.)

    1. It's amazing what we can achieve when we don't want to, isn't it? LOL

  13. Ah, yeah! I learned about this in my psychology class! Thanks for reminding me about this :)

    1. :-) If we only could get all these good rules into our blood ... we'd be such great trainers, wouldn't we?


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