Intrinsic v.s Extrinsic Rewards in Dogs

Intrinsic v.s Extrinsic Rewards in Dogs

2018 update

There has been so much research on humans and animals regarding drive, decision making, motivation and reward systems I truly apologize to the founders of these theories.  I am two lazy to sight you. The truth is that there are so many studies and theories  that they are assimilated in my head and I am not sure what bit came from where.

Dog trainers often do not spend enough time on this topic they often attribute a dogs motivation to  extrinsic reward, food, ball or whatever. They also latch on to meaningless terms like self rewarding. The majority of a dog and a humans motivation is based on phenotype, prior leaning and our interpretation of the situation we are in. Motivations are often implicit even to we humans. I like to break Motivation down into two types. The first is what I call primary motivation and this is implicit This is the underlying theme of our motivation and all conscious motives will be colored by this primary motivation.

Here is what I hope is a good example it is certainly a way to common occurrence. Your dog is aggressive and “lashes out” a lot. You decide that my dog is not social. This is a mistake. If your dog loves people but, lashes out at other dogs well… there is a reason Fido has decided other dogs are a threat. This might even be based off of what your dog reads in your nonverbal comms around other dogs. your solution is to run down to the local dog park strap on the old treat bag and teach Fido that other dogs are fun. You really want Fido to be a social puppy. This is a sad deal for all involved. Fido is totally focused on his intrinsic motivations that are based on protecting you and all the treats in the world will not change that. If you change your behavior and thereby, relive Fido of his constant state of alert around other dogs his primary motivation will change allowing for him to make different explicit decisions. Now if you are up on this stuff you might be inclined to say that this all sounds like drives or instinct.. you are right.

Drive… my dog sees a squirrel, bike, car and/or anything that moves and just bang, goes after it. This is a drive, the dog has a genetic disposition to go after moving objects, Hunt, This is likely self rewarding, perhaps one of the most intrinsically rewarding things a dog or a person can achieve is satisfaction of a drive but not always.  The dog does this without thought. Primary Drives, think Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you look at primary drives they are there for our survival and reproduction of the species. I like to see them as stress. There is good stress and bad stress  so acting on a primary drive maybe rewarding and/or it may just relieve stress. Just temporarily relieving stress is not necessarily a reward.  How the individual interprets and situation is the key to the perception of reward. Of course there is nurture…… you know nature vs nurture.

Here is a totally stereotypical human scenario, Nature, you want women to like you. The primary drive here should be obvious. You notice the women you like, seem to like big trucks. You develop an interest for big trucks, this in Nurture, however, you buy the biggest badest truck in the world and all the guys are envious, this is a secondary reward like the food you give to your dog. However, you are still stressed because for some unknown reason this is not upping your value as a potential reproductive partner. Motivation always has a “core” you need to resolve this need or use this need. These true motivator are often implicit and our explicit decisions are based on them. So, there are moments of secondary motivation that result in partial reward but, the true reward is found in the resolution of the primary motivating factor.

Your dog may lash out at on-coming dogs while on a walk. The other dog may avoid you and you think that your dog has self rewarded when really it knows you are scared and nervous or angry and embarrassed (these are primes) and it is still on high alert for the next threat (cues). Not so rewarding and the dogs motivation has nothing to do with external factors. Stuff in out in the world. They become cues. So, your dog walks around constantly amped/ or primed and ready to protect you. Your dog is searching for the next cue. If you have ever experienced this it is less then self rewarding.  How does nature handle this? Think of being a Navy SEAl clearing a building. Eliminating one threat is relieving but, you don’t have time to stop and pat yourself on the back. If one of your teammates runs over and tells you how great that shot was you may get a reward of sorts but, you are more likely to think… we are still in danger so, put the treats away an help me out here. Your dog has similar set of thoughts when she is trying to defend you and you keep interrupting to reward her. If your and/or your dog face something like a behavioral pattern of aggression or anxiety this gets even more complicated. One of the important variables in motivation is threshold. Some dogs and people have very high desire for some things and not such a desire for others. This is unique to the individual and is based primarily on phenotype. The funny thing about this story is that none of it was necessarily decided on with conscious thought.  If you ask this poor guy why he wants a really giant truck he may think it is honestly about the truck. All of these external or environmental things are what psychologist term .. primes and cues.  Once a primary motivation is activated we .. dogs and humans … actually run around mostly on autopilot and our behavior is “activated” base on what we encounter in our environment and how we interoperate those things. Simply stated, we learn by 1. being aware of our true motivations 2. bringing these interpretations of our environment into consciousness and 3. creating different responses to the cues and primes in these situations. Just as with all things in the natural world not all animals have the same intensity of drive and not all animals have the same threshold for activating these primary motivators.

So, the nature part is the instinct to hunt often termed prey drive. Kind of like that one. Nature gives the dog these programed needs and the world shapes them. So, some dogs have very high prey drive or we could say a low threshold, or how sensitive or easily the dogs drive is activated.. just like people. Some dogs have a very high threshold and are not really driven to hunt at all. We have not figured out how to raise the prey drive of a dog but, we can train a dog to manage instinct and raised their threshold. I use prey drive because all doggy people love this one the problem with it is that the majority of problems arise NOT from prey drive at all but, from the primary drive of self preservation and the primary drive to protect those in your pack. You are going to have to come see Motley for help with that. Training a dog to hunt is a very simple proposition and is the foundation for almost all working dogs regardless of the specific task the perform. Most dog trainers love prey drive…. me too. Lots of fun but, you have to understand the other primary drives to help dogs. For those who need our help or want to learn … email Motley right now and let have some fun! [email protected]

🙂 Back to the drive to hunt.

Again, I learned this from Wolves and other predators… if they are born with low prey drive then …. well oops, nature has a way of selecting only the highly driven hunters. Fluffy your little dog that has no interest in hunting survives because of you and our wonderful interference in breeding.  As for anxious well, have you even been around a Wolf ? The truth is that most successful Wolves are not anxious but, have superior situational awareness and are really quite confident… don’t believe me, challenge one that you think is anxious and afraid.  I would say that being on alert is a trait that is selected for in the wild. So, we have got to learn how to select the dog that fits our needs and the more drive and alert a dog is, it seems the better predator, protector and maybe leader they are. Wolves teach each other several hunting strategies and if you watch them hunt there is a lot… a lot of thought and leadership going on during the hunt. Another fun example is Orca Whales… they are smart as hell. So this clued us into the fact that dogs just burst out and behave badly, not because of their drive but, because we have to teach them…nature. Just as when other predators teach each other how to hunt the teacher has to know what they are doing. It is not as simple as punish or reward.

Some dogs have these high drives that would be, in a wild setting, a benefit but in our environment the become anxiety, fear and/or aggression. The dogs interpretation of the situation and your reaction to these things is what determines reward or just temporary relief of negative stress. If you are constantly afraid or anxious and your poor dog is constantly on high alert trying to protect you from everything this is not self rewarding you are likely a pain in your dogs butt. If you are calm cool and collected and your dog keeps going off then you have to determine if it is prey drive, protection drive gone wild or what…. it is not as simple as the dog is reactive and self rewarding.

In dog training our goal simplified is to take behaviors that believe it or not we humans selected for when we were developing these dogs and make them useful in today’s world. Selection is everything people. If you want a quite dog that does not bark at everything that passes by their territory why would you choose a highly driven dog breed to protect like a herding breed? Similarly, just because they are a herding breed does not mean they have a high prey drive and if they don’t … love your dog for who they are. Dogs are individuals so, get to know your dog. However, you have to teach the dog how to use these drives in the world we live in just like wild predators do. They do not have clickers and treat bags and they do not repeat things until they go insane.

so, you ask, what the @#)($*#$N !!! does this have to do with reward and motivation ? I am glad you asked 🙂

Dogs and people build behavioral patterns they learn to search the environment for cues and act according to, phenotype, past experience and learning. Dogs and people also learn things that are based on the environment or situation and our interpretation of that environment or scenario. Motivation has little to do with food or reward and punishment you can read up on it. 90% of the time we like our dogs do not have any conscious awareness of our true motivations, or our actions, believe it or not this is the majority of the time. Rewards are communication tools and little more. This goes for clickers, favorite toys and even the location that you train in. Yes a location can become a great reward or a nightmare. This is why if you take the same route to the dog park every day Jiffy gets all excited… She knows where you are going. It is worth saying that if you dog is scared out of its mind … leave the treats in the car! This is analogous to you eating a cheeseburger while being chased by a Bear.

The bottom line is that motivators, intrinsic and extrinsic are subjective and fluid in nature the majority of which, we and our dogs, are not conscious of and are based in Instinct. These mechanisms are the strongest motivators, rewards and punishments in nature. Learn to use them and what they really are,  It is important that you are creative, unpredictable and perhaps most importantly have realistic goals and expectations for your team.   When you reward a dog it is not the reward that you want the dog to be driven by. The goal is that you want the dog to want to do whatever with YOU and FOR YOU. When this attachment occurs that is when your dog will happily lay down their lives for you, and likely at least try to do anything for you… depends on what nature gave you.




P.S. If you get nothing from this try to remember this simple rule. The reward needs to fit the drive. Food rewards or toys usually work because what we are doing is using the dogs primary drives that are associated with these things. Bad things happen when we attempt to use a reward from one drive to satisfy another.

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