A reinforcer is anything that immediately follows a behaviour and serves to maintain and/or increase the frequency of that behaviour in the future. At any one time, there are generally numerous reinforcers available within your animal’s environment. Often when we are training our animals, we (and the reinforcers we offer) are the most reinforcing thing. Consequently our animals come over and participate in our training sessions. However as any good trainer knows, the value of what we have to offer can change between environments, over time and with scarcity/availability.
Animals always orientate towards the most reinforcing thing in their environment. Competing reinforcers are different stimuli in our animal’s environments that have reinforcing value. As you can see in this lessons video (below), the most reinforcing thing is not always us. This is something that dog owners frequently report experiencing. Some dog owners find that when they are at home with their dogs, their dogs perform a variety of behaviors consistently and on cue. However the dogs behaviour changes when they leave the house and go to the dog park. One major difference between the dog park and home is the different reinforcers available (for example unique smells and other dogs at the park). In this lessons video you can see that taking training outside with T-lo the cat suddenly means that there are bugs to chase. The change in environment offers different reinforcers and consequently the value of what I have to offer is decreased.
Reinforcement is anything that immediately follows a behaviour and serves to maintain and/or increase the frequency of that behaviour in the future. By developing a thorough understanding of the meaning of reinforcement (and competing reinforcers) you can understand your animals behaviour a little bit better. Your animal is not being naughty or bad when they don’t do what you want, they are just doing the most reinforcing thing available to them. This knowledge challenges you to examine your animals environments, making the right behaviors easier to perform and more reinforcing then the wrong behaviors.