Reinforcement through Variety and Control

Variety as a reinforcer

Variety is a reinforcer. When it comes to dogs, this holds true for toys, smells, environments, and also food. I try to offer a variety of the above to my dogs. There are usually several toys out in the living room, but I will rotate the selection of available toys every couple of days. That is to say, for the last days, for example, there have been 3 plush toys, a squeaky shoe and a rubber ring out in the living room. I’ll probably rotate toys tonight, exchange the plush toys for different ones, take away the rubber ring and put out a nylabone or a squeaky hamburger instead.

As for food, my dogs sometimes get frozen Kongs with canned dog food, sometimes kibble which may be either offered in bowls or in puzzle feeders, sometimes a variety of raw meats with a variety of fruit and vegetables, with or without joyghurt and butter milk, with a variety of oils, … They’ll sometimes get ostrich bones to chew on, sometimes beef bones, sometimes rawhyde, sometimes all sorts of dried animal parts from pigs’ ears to bulls’ pizzles. And the treats we’re working with are as diverse as I can come up with; there’s cheese, dried fish, hot dogs, store-bought dog treats, home-baked dog treats, bread crumbs, liver paté, salmon paté, …

Today’s doggie breakfast

Also, of course, our outings take us to different places, to the city, to the forest, to the meadows, to the dog park, to the lake, to the shopping mall …

The reinforcing quality of variety has been confirmed in formal studies, and it has been shown that “[a]nimals with variety in their lives are healthier and happier, just like people” (Schneider, 26).

Control as a reinforcer

However, it has been found that control (over variety) is an even stronger reinforcer than variety itself: getting to choose from a variety of options is more reinforcing than a variety we cannot control. Schneider (28) quotes a study with nocturnal deer mice. Being nocturnal, these mice prefer darkness over light. As would be expected, when they learned to operate a light switch in an experiment, they would choose to turn off the light. However – and this is the interesting part -, when the light was automatically turned off every 30 minutes, the mice would turn it back on! Control (being able to operate the light switch and manipulate their own environment) trumped their preference for darkness.
Deer mouse (peromyscus maniculatus)

What does that mean for ourselves, and for dog training? Well, for me, it means that I will sometimes choose a flavor of chocolate or ice cream that isn’t my favorite one, simply because I like variation and making little choices. It means I like going to restaurants, because ordering is fun. Also, it means that if I had children, I’d give them as many choices as they could handle: which sweater do you want to wear? What do you want for breakfast?

When it comes to my dogs, I have observed that especially Phoebe loves choosing her own toy from the toy box. Even though she knows what toys are in there and she gets all of them on a regular basis, she has the best time if I just present her with the open box and she can pick one. I’ve always done this, but never had an explanation why choosing would be more fun than simply being presented with a different toy every day. Schneider’s book brings it all together.

All my dogs also get to pick their chewy treats every once in a while: I’ve got a variety of different ones in a box, and I’ll offer the box to them and let them pick one.


Schneider, Susan M. (2012): The Science of Consequences. How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world.

Deer mouse image source (accessed July 24, 2014)

Leave a Reply