Punishing — Neutral —Reinforcing
Any motivation can vary in effectiveness depending on factors such as time, place, association and physiology. If a stimulus (motivation) has no meaning to an animal, it is labeled as neutral. It will not change a behavior. That leaves us with either a reinforcing or punishing stimulus on opposite ends of this spectrum.
Often we take a reinforcer to the extreme. Anything in excess can become a punisher, including something as lovely as a dog’s favorite salami or even candy to a child. If you are hungry, something like food can be highly reinforcing. If someone has not had anything to drink all day after working outside, they will do anything for even a sip of water. After a liter or more of water, if you continue to give them water and definitely if you force them to drink it, water will become a punishment.
Using this as a visual, we see the continuum come full cycle:
- The motivation (water) was neutral earlier in the day when the human wasn’t thirsty. You wouldn’t have been able to motivate them to do much by offering them water.
- The motivation was reinforcing when the human was thirsty. The water gained value in their eyes, causing them to do almost anything to earn it.
- The motivation became punishing when the human had enough or too much water. It became something he or she no longer wanted or came to resent.
- It then goes back to neutral and then reinforcing once they become thirsty again, and so on.
Keeping this information in the front of our mind when approaching a training session, we can set ourselves up for success and plan. When would be the best time to use food as a motivator? Before they have eaten, in the morning or evening. They will be hungry and putting in extra effort to earn their food. Play is a great motivator for an animal who has extra energy to burn (maybe after being at home, bored, all day). A tired animal will do nothing to play with you, of course…
If we find something that motivates our animal it can be a fantastic tool. Once we’ve found it, the tricky part is to not over use it. This would cause it to become neutral or even a punisher. If your dog likes bananas, don’t always use bananas. Save bananas as a special reward if they did something amazingly.
What motivates your animals the most?
What do you think would motivate this baby polar bear?? So cute!