Tag Archives: Training Thoughtfully

The Hierarchy of Rewards is Not Static

In 2014, I published a blog post entitled Jambo’s Hierarchy of Rewards in which I discussed the different reinforcers I use when training and the ‘value’ they have for my learner.  In my article entitled Rewards and Positive Reinforcement – Are they the same?  I discussed the meaning of rewards versus reinforcement. In this article I would like to take a look at “hierarchies”.

When needs are not being met, animals will be motivated to try and fulfil those needs.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us. The original hierarchy of needs five-stage model includes:

  1. Biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep. The things that we need to survive. All animals are motivated by these needs. If we are hungry we will want to eat, if we are thirsty, we will want to drink.
  2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear. Not having these needs met can lead to stress and anxiety and even to aggressive responses in an effort to protect ourselves
  3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work). The need for us to communicate with others and interact with others. If this need isn’t met we can become depressed and anxious. The same is true of animals.
  4. Esteem needs – which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g. status, prestige).
  5. Self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

It is important to note that Maslow’s (1943, 1954) five stage model has been expanded to include cognitive and aesthetic needs (Maslow, 1970a) and later transcendence needs (Maslow, 1970b) as follows:

  1. Biological and physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Love and belongingness needs
  4. Esteem needs
  5. Cognitive needs – knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability. The need to understand and a desire to know things.
  6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
  7. Self-actualization needs
  8. Transcendence needs – A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self. e.g. mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, a religious faith etc. (McLeod, 2017)

Why is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory important?  It has made a big impact on how we teach and manage our students in school. We know that behavior is a response to the environment but Maslow’s hierarchy also looks at the physical, emotional, social and intellectual needs and how they impact learning. The hierarchy also clearly shows us that before an individual’s cognitive needs can be met, we must fulfil the basic physiological needs. I often tell my clients that although we want to use food as reinforcement that does not mean that I want anyone to not feed their dog.  A hungry learner will find it very difficult to focus on learning!  I also believe we should show our learners, both human and canine, that they are valued and respected and ensure we work with them in a safe and supportive environment.  We need to meet the esteem needs of all our students so that they can quickly progress with their learning!

The Hierarchy of Dog Needs adapted from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Pet Professional Guild member, Linda Michaels, is a hierarchical model of wellness and behavior modification in which first we meet our dogs’ biological, emotional and social needs and, once these foundational needs have been met, we use management, antecedent modification, positive and differential reinforcement, counter-conditioning and desensitization to modify behavior.

Although not a hierarchy, before I get back to my Hierarchy of Rewards, I would like to mention Brambell’s Five Freedoms, which put responsibility on the animal care taker to make sure they provide animals with a good welfare environment.  I learned about the Five Freedoms and other animal welfare frameworks as part of my Animal Behaviour and Welfare course, University of Edinburgh.

In 1965, the UK government commissioned an investigation, led by Professor Roger Brambell, into the welfare of intensively farmed animals. The Brambell Report stated that:  “An animal should at least have sufficient freedom of movement to be able without difficulty, to turn round, groom Itself, get up, lie down and stretch its limbs”. This short recommendation became known as Brambell’s Five Freedoms. Because of the report, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee was created to monitor the livestock production sector. In July 1979, this was replaced by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and by the end of that year, the five freedoms had been codified into the recognizable list format. Although developed for farm animals, Brambell’s Five Freedoms can be adapted to pets. The Five Freedoms are:

  • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
    By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
  • Freedom from Discomfort
    By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
    By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to Display Natural Behavior
    By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from Fear and Distress
    By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

In addition to Brambell’s Five Freedoms other animal welfare frameworks such as the Duty of Care Concept need to be foremost in our minds when caring for and working with any animal. The Duty of Care Concept focuses on providing animals with a safe happy environment which they can enjoy and encourages legal responsibility for those animals.

Now back to Jambo’s Hierarchy of Rewards (Stapleton-Frappell, 2013)  If you have read everything above, you will understand that before beginning any training, the trainer should make sure that the learner’s basic needs are met. The trainer can then make use of both primary and secondary reinforcers but must bear in mind that the ‘value’ will be ascertained by the recipient and not the provider as, although I use the name Hierarchy of Rewards, I am referring to a hierarchy of positive reinforcement consequences.

The ‘value’ will be ascertained by the recipient and not the provider

Whether teaching Jambo or any other learner a new behavior, or reinforcing behaviors that have previously been taught, I use that learner’s own personal ‘hierarchy of rewards’.  Each individual’s hierarchy includes lower ‘value’ reinforcers which are consequence stimuli that will serve to reinforce simple known behaviors in that individual’s home environment or other non-distracting environments; medium ‘value’ reinforcers which will serve to reinforce slightly more difficult behaviors or behaviors in slightly more demanding environments, and finally, high ‘value’ reinforcers – those reinforcers that are at the ‘top of the tree’, the real ‘top guns’  that we use to reinforce more demanding behaviors and behaviors in environments where there are a lot of competing stimuli.

My go-to reinforcer when teaching a new behavior or when I need lots of repetitions is always food – small pieces of tasty, easy to chew and easy to swallow food – as I can deliver it quickly and maintain a high rate of reinforcement. It is also more effective to use smaller reinforcements more frequently rather than large reinforcements less often. However, I also make good use of ‘non-food’ items, which include everything from balls to tug toys to life rewards –  access to things my learner wants, such as going outside, sniffing a patch of grass, greeting someone…  Whether using food or non-food reinforcers, primary or secondary reinforcers, one thing is certain – reinforcers are not all equal and the ‘value’ of an individual reinforcer is not static. The ‘value’ to the learner will change depending on such factors as:

  • The behavior itself – The behaviors, as determined by the animal’s ability to do them and its biological pre-disposition to behave in certain ways, are easier or more difficult to reinforce. Behavior that depends on smooth muscles and glands is harder to reinforce than is behavior that depends on skeletal muscles. (Chance, Learning and Behavior, 2013)
  • The individual’s preferences
  • Previous learning history
  • The Setting Events and Motivating Operations

There are variables affecting reinforcement and affecting the value of each reinforcer at any given time, in different environments and with different individuals.  We also need to bear in mind that If we use the higher ‘value’ reinforcers too frequently for easy behaviors in non-distracting environments, we could find that not only will our learner no longer be motivated to ‘work’ for lower value reinforcers, but also that we dilute the value of those reinforcers that were previously at the top of the Hierarchy, making them less effective in more demanding situations or with more demanding behaviors.  We should make sure that we have a variety of reinforcers on all levels of our learner’s Hierarchy so that we have something to call upon of appropriate value in all situations. Varying the reinforcement consequence that is offered, will also help to overcome satiation – at some point, we have all eaten enough of that delicious cake but that doesn’t mean that we would say no to an ice-cold bottle of beer!

Although each individual will have their own Hierarchy of Rewards, neither Jambo nor any other learner’s Hierarchy of Rewards is static.  What works as a reinforcer one day may be of little interest to the same learner the next day.

The Hierarchy of Rewards

If Jambo were reasonably hungry and we were working in a non-distracting environment, he would probably find kibble (dry dog food) to be of sufficient ‘value’ and it would serve as an adequate reinforcement consequence.  If, however, we were to try and do that same behavior in a more distracting environment, at a greater distance or perhaps when Jambo had just eaten, then the kibble would have very little, if any ‘value’ and would not serve to positively reinforce a behavior.  If Jambo were in a playful mood then his tug toy would have a much higher value than if he were tired and ready for bed. An opportunity to sniff a nice patch of grass might serve to reinforce the behavior of coming close to me on a nice summer’s evening but on a dark and wet winter’s night, the opposite would be true –  If I wanted Jambo to leave my side and go to the grass, then it might be returning to my side and the protection of my umbrella that would serve as a reinforcer but maybe even that would not be of high enough ‘value’ and he would simply decide not to carry out the behavior. Perhaps performing ‘send-aways’ in the rain, calls for roast chicken?

This is the second in a series of three posts from my article: “The Hierarchy of Rewards – Delving into the World of Positive Reinforcers” for BARKS from the Guild magazine.  Part one can be found here:  Rewards and Positive Reinforcement – Are they the same?  In part three we will take a closer look at motivating operations; Jambo’s personal Hierarchy of Rewards, and some of the primary and secondary reinforcers we can all make use of in our training

This article has also been published as a DogSmith blog and through DogNostics Career Center with the title: A Dog’s Hierarchy of Rewards

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Training Thoughtfully

I have just returned to Spain after three days of ‘Training Thoughtfully’ with Kay Laurence, Alexandra Kurland and Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz.
Animal Behaviourist, pet dog trainer and blogger extraordinaire, Mary Hunter asked me what the best part of the seminar was.  Now that is a difficult question as there were so many highlights!
First of all I would have to comment on the ‘cruise’ style of presenting. Although there was an ‘agenda’, the three days felt more like a conversation between friends than a seminar.  That doesn’t mean to say that learning didn’t take place, as every piece of information was either absorbed or written down to be pondered at a later date!
I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which the material was presented.  Everything was explained with a story and wow, Kay, Alex and Jesús sure have a lot of interesting stories! Scientific topics are frequently presented in a dull and often difficult to understand format but every story increased the understanding of every topic. All conversations continued into break time. There were small pockets of people either working on balance with Alexandra, talking about cues and reinforcement with Kay or happily chatting about behavioural analysis with Jesús.  There was a great selection of attendees, some from the dog world and many from the horse world. I myself travelled back from Spain and others had travelled from as far afield as Israel, Germany, Portugal…
We played lots of PORTL, which I’m sure had a great impact on everybody there. It was fascinating to learn a little about the character of our learner just through watching how they responded to the game.  Much time was spent on planning each behaviour taught and many breaks taken to revise the criteria in order to set our learners up for success.
Many of you will know that I think all training should be fun but science based.  I teach all behaviours as ‘tricks’ as I believe that, in doing so, we set both trainer and learner up for success.  Whether teaching a ‘stay’, a ‘recall’, a ‘spin’ or a fun routine, teaching behaviours as ‘tricks’ sets the theme – learning should be playful!  I therefore loved the fact that much emphasis was placed on play.   RAGE, FEAR, GRIEF/PANIC (punishing) and SEEKING, LUST, CARE and PLAY (rewarding/reinforcing) – Jaak Panksepp’s primary-process affective emotional systems of the brain were referred to several times with emphasis on play being essential for healthy brain development and for learning – when playful one can find solutions that are not available when afraid!
In the TrickMeister – Mastering fun and increasing your team knowledge and skills Course curriculum I not only place an emphasis on play but also on making sure that we break each behaviour down into easily achievable criteria to set our learner up for success and achieve minimal or ‘micro’ error learning.  Kay Laurence calls this ‘micro-slicing’ and I myself, use Kay’s terminology and practice of micro-shaping behaviours.  I also love to teach learners a wide repertoire of behaviours, all successfully learnt without incurring lots of errors.  Jesús‘s talk on extinction and resurgence highlighted how important this is.
Micro-shaping behaviours means that only micro-extinction occurs as we build in each new approximation to the final behaviour.  Micro-errors do not destroy confidence.  Our learners need ‘puzzle moments’ (Kay Laurence) and the ability to explore their options.  These ‘micro-errors’ are actually just information.  Teaching with too large an increase in criteria leads to an extinction process that can be stressful, frustrating and punitive for the learner – “The failure of response to get reinforced leads not only to operant extinction but also to a reaction commonly spoken of as frustration or rage” Jesús Rosales-Ruiz.  We also need to bare in mind that when resurgence occurs we fall back on previously learnt behaviours.  We should always strive to build from a clear base position. This foundation behaviour will be the behaviour our learner returns to when unsure of how to proceed.  If our base behaviours are taught without errors, well practised, building confidence and trust in the learning process, we really are setting our learners up for success!    The more fun-filled, ‘thoughtfully’ taught, positively reinforced behaviours our learners know, the less space there will be for our learners to fall back on behaviours we would rather not see!
I have previously spoken out about training behaviours just because they might look good (impressive) to the spectator.  I, for example,  was once questioned as to why I haven’t taught Jambo to do a free-standing handstand.  My answer was that it isn’t a suitable ‘trick’ for him.  Yes, I teach some behaviours just for fun but I will always endeavour to never teach anything that could be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of my learner.  I have also been criticised for advising people not to do anything that would place undue stress on a learner’s joints (for example ‘jumping tricks’).  Alexandra pointed out that the training methods we choose evolve from our underlying beliefs and principles.  Kay added to this by saying:  “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  We are using very powerful training technology and just because we are using positive reinforcement – “It isn’t okay”.

I will end with a quotation from each presenter.

Alexandra Kurland:  “For every step you include in your training, there is always a smaller step you can break the behaviour down into.  Don’t get louder.  Get quieter – Take smaller steps!”

Kay Laurence quoting Chris Bond:  “It’s not about training impressive behaviours, it’s about impressive training of behaviours.”

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz:  “Build the behaviour with what you want, so when you use extinction, or it occurs, you fall back on wanted behaviours.

The seminar description said: ‘A boost to the deepest Winter dreariness. Presentations to inspire, explain, explore and discover PORTL Activities to deepen understanding, reflect and absorb.’  It certainly didn’t dissappoint!  A big thank you to Kay , Alex, and Jésus – It was a privilege to be part of this amazingly informative yet fun-filled ‘land cruise’

profile pic in black and white
Louise Stapleton-Frappell B.A. HONS. PCT-A. CAP3. CTDI. Dn-FSG.