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Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers in Dog Training | Pupford

December 21st, 2023

Filed under Training

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Positive reinforcement training is a science-based dog training approach that focuses on rewarding desirable behaviors to encourage their repetition. If you are unfamiliar with positive reinforcement training, you can learn more here !

In this blog post, we will explore a fundamental aspect of this training methodology: the distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers.

While positive reinforcement, in general, involves the use of rewards to reinforce desirable behaviors, understanding the nuances between primary and secondary reinforcers can significantly enhance the effectiveness of your training sessions.

Here's what we will cover:

  1. Understanding Primary Reinforcers
  2. Understanding Secondary Reinforcers
  3. Integrating Primary and Secondary Reinforcers


dog training with primary reinforcers

Reinforcement is a term used in operant conditioning that refers to something that strengthens or increases a behavior.

A primary reinforcer is something inherently rewarding to a dog that meets their basic biological needs for survival, such as:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • The avoidance of pain.

Dogs are hardwired to respond positively to these primary reinforcers due to their intrinsic value.

Genetics and learning history can impact their primary reinforcers as well. Dogs genetically selected for their high prey drive may find certain toys to be a primary reinforcer. Dogs who were genetically selected for their ability to work closely with humans may find attention or praise to be a primary reinforcer.

The power of primary reinforcers lies in their direct link to a dog’s instinctual drives. Food, for instance, taps into a dog’s natural inclination to seek sustenance, making it an exceptionally potent motivator.

However, because of this you always want to make sure you aren’t accidentally bribing your dog with food or pushing them to do something they are afraid of by trying to coax them with food.

Learn how to avoid this here! 

To utilize the full potential of primary reinforcers timing and consistency are paramount. Delivering a treat promptly after marking a desired behavior reinforces the association between the behavior and the reward.

Varying the types of primary reinforcers can also add excitement and improve a dog’s engagement during training sessions. This is why dog trainers will often have multiple flavors of Pupford Training Treats and Rewards on hand during a training session. 


dog getting praised for a job well done

Secondary reinforcers, unlike primary reinforcers, don’t inherently fulfill a dog’s immediate needs.

Instead, they acquire value through association with primary reinforcers. A dog has to learn that a secondary reinforcer is good, they do this through experience and learning history.

Secondary reinforcers can also illicit biological functions such as salivating or increased heart rate, as well as alertness. Examples of secondary reinforcers include:

  • Clicker
  • Toys
  • Praise
  • Other specific objects like a leash

Establishing a strong connection between secondary and primary reinforcers requires consistency. For example, when a clicker reliably predicts a food reward, the dog learns to associate the click sound with positive outcomes.

Clickers, in particular, are notable for their precision in marking desired behavior, providing a clear and consistent signal to the dog.

Clickers are mechanical devices that emit a distinct sound when pressed. While clickers do not offer an intrinsic reward, they serve as a powerful secondary reinforcer due to their predictability and consistency, if used properly.

Are you new to clicker training? No worries! Learn more here.  

Other secondary reinforcers may be mundane things we don’t put much thought into. For example, my dog comes running when he hears the sound of me getting ice from the fridge because he knows that means I will give him some. Or even getting their harness and leash out can be a secondary reinforcer since it predicts going outside.

While secondary reinforcers play a crucial role, relying solely on them can pose challenges. Dogs may not find certain secondary reinforcers as inherently motivating, especially in distracting environments.

Remember that certain situations may require higher rewards. - A personal favorite of mine for a high-value reward is the Pupford Salmon Jerky.  

Humans have primary and secondary reinforcers too! For us, some examples of secondary reinforcers may include money, praise, good grades, gold stars/stickers, etc. But just like dogs, we will expect a higher reward for more difficult tasks. For example, you probably wouldn’t trade your paycheck for stickers, or if you worked overtime you would expect a higher paycheck that week.


using reinforcers in dog training

The most effective positive reinforcement training often involves seamlessly using both primary and secondary reinforcers. This flexibility allows trainers to adapt to different scenarios, catering to the individual dog, the current environment they are training in, and the dog's current motivation levels.

It is also important to understand your dog’s reward hierarchy. Knowing what is the most rewarding and/or motivating for your dog will be very helpful throughout your training journey.

For example, some dogs may do anything for a piece of cheese, and others may be more motivated by a tennis ball. Rewards should be prioritized, higher-value rewards are reserved for tasks that require more of your dog's attention or for more difficult behaviors.

By using both primary and secondary reinforcers during training you wean dogs off of food and create an intermittent reward schedule. Eventually, the cue words of behaviors themselves can become a secondary reinforcer as well. Watch a video demonstration here!  

Developing strong secondary reinforcers increases the communication between dogs and humans, which leads to happier, more energetic training.

In conclusion, the use of primary and secondary reinforcers forms the foundation of effective positive reinforcement training.

By recognizing the inherent value of primary reinforcers and the acquired value of secondary reinforcers, we can create a personalized training approach that maximizes motivation and engagement for our dogs. Remember that each dog is unique, and it is important to train the dog in front of you.


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