Satiation vs. Deprivation: Ethics and Smart Training Choices


If you are like me, you probably love chocolate. If you wanted to teach me something using a high-value food reinforcer, chocolate would be the way to go. However, there are times when chocolate loses some of its reinforcing power: right after a big lunch, I’ll be full and not particularly interested in chocolate. And if I’ve already had a sundae that day, I’d rather work for something savory – maybe riffle chips (the red pepper flavored kind). In order to be an effective trainer of Chrissi, you should know these things about me.

And there is more: if you deny me access to chocolate for several days or even weeks, chocolate will be much more attractive – it’ll feel special and gain even more reinforcing power. You could also get a particularly high value kind of chocolate (Swiss chocolate truffles, for example) that I don’t have access to on a daily basis and achieve a similar reward-boosting effect.

A third way to strengthen the power of chocolate as a reinforcer is to not feed me all day, and then ask me to work for chocolate. I’ll be hungry, and when I’m hungry, I’ll crave that chocolate bar even more. (Note that if I haven’t eaten in a very long time and my blood sugar is low, my performance will suffer – no matter how much I want the chocolate, I won’t be able to concentrate well.)

Let’s say you don’t want to work with chocolate. You’d rather use a healthier reinforcer. How about seafood? It’s supposed to be good to have some on a regular basis! Well – I don’t like seafood. I’m not going to work for your seafood. Unless, that is, I’m SO hungry that I don’t care what I get as long as it’s edible. Starve me for a day, and I’ll be more willing to perform for a shrimp.

The variables you’ve manipulated in these examples are satiation and deprivation. I’m not the only one who is affected by them: the same goes for our dogs. (Note that these diagrams are in no way scientifically accurate – they are just meant to illustrate a point.)

Satiation Diagram A

Diagram A: The relationship between satiation and reward value

In Diagram A, the X axis depicts Satiation. The further to the right, the more satiated the dog. On the far right, the dog has eaten a bit too much, and now his tummy aches a bit. On the very left, the dog is starving and desperate for something – anything – to eat.

Let’s assume you’re working with a medium to low value reward. Your dog will always take it, unless he is feeling sick or has eaten way too much to care. The blue dots show that the more deprived your dog, the higher the value of the same reward. It’s a linear development.

Satiation Diagram B

Diagram B: The relationship between satiation and performance

Diagram B shows the relationship between your dog’s level of satiation and her training performance. As in the previous graph, we have satiation on the X axis.

The Y axis depicts your dog’s performance. The red dots show the relationship between the two. Unlike in the previous graph, the development of the performance is not linear. Up until a certain point, the dog’s performance increases with deprivation. However, at a certain point, it starts to decrease again. In the example of reinforcing Chrissi with chocolate, the peak of the graph would be my best performance. It would likely occur after starving me for a few hours, but not an entire day. If you starve me for too long, my blood sugar will drop too far. I won’t be able to concentrate on the task you ask of me, or perform a well-known behavior at top speed.

The Ethics of Working with Deprivation

Satiation Diagram C

Diagram C: Where do you draw the line?

Diagram C has a dotted grey line parallel to the Y axis. This line is defined by your ethics, and it’ll look a little different for every trainer, and for every reinforcer that trainer uses in her training: you’re okay working to the right of the dotted grey line – on the green line parallel to the X axis that defines the satiation level. You aren’t okay working to the left of the dotted grey line: you feel like it’s not fair to deprive your dog to this level for no other reason than to strengthen the reward value to the point of top performance.

Where do you draw the line?

Think about where YOU draw your line. What satiation level is both in line with your ethics, and gives you the highest reinforcement value (the double-headed green arrow on the X axis)? That’s your ideal training space.

Primary Reinforcers: Food and Water

When it comes to food, my line of ethics doesn’t go all the way to top performance/high satiation. I won’t deprive my dogs of their daily food in order to increase the value of their reinforcers. However, I am perfectly fine using their regular meals for training, or training right before or during their dinner or breakfast time. Naturally, they’ll be more hungry at this point than after a meal. My ideal satiation level is right before and during regular meal times. When I want to make my food reinforcers extra valuable, that’s when I’ll train.

If you train for quite a while, you may see your dog’s interest in his treats decrease as the session goes on: the fuller he is, the lower their value gets. While some dogs never lose interest in treats, others show this effect consistently. If that’s the case with your dog, make sure to keep your food training sessions short, or use high value treats!

Water is something my dogs always have access to when we’re at home. I won’t ever deprive them of it. Therefore, water isn’t a reinforcer I can use in my training – it’s a primary reinforcer (all animals need to drink), but its value tends to be low because it’s freely available. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t use it as a reinforcer when the opportunity just happens to present itself! On hot days, I’ll bring water for myself and the dogs on a hike, to the beach, or to the training field. After lots of running around or a high energy training or play session, my dogs will be thirsty, and I’ll offer them water. They are going to get the water anyways, but why not throw in a quick recall or ask them to walk up to the water bowl on a loose leash? You could also practice impulse control by asking them to hold their position while you put the bowl on the ground, and then release them to it. If my dog just happens to be thirsty, it’ll be heavily reinforcing. If he doesn’t comply for whatever reason, he’ll get his water anyways, of course. Using things your dog has free or regular access to in moments when they just happen to be stronger reinforcers than usual isn’t the same as depriving your dog of his meal or his water – it’s making a smart training choice.

Game’s recall is being reinforced by an opportunity to drink some fresh water (I don’t use a marker cue for this):

Secondary Reinforcers: Toys, and the Opportunity to Train

When it comes to toys, dogs tend to be highly motivated at the beginning of a session. However, the more often they have already chased the ball or tugged their toy, the less interesting the toy gets: your dog – unless he is a ball junkie – is becoming satiated by the play.

If you have a dog who doesn’t like to play for hours on end, the smart training choice is to keep your training sessions short and end them before the dog is satiated by your toy reinforcer. That way, you’re always training with a strong reinforcer.

Another secondary reinforcer is a more specific kind of attention: training time! While some dogs are training junkies and never get tired of working for their human (Phoebe would fall into this category), others are more easily satiated by training. It’s not that they don’t like spending time with you – it’s just that training is fun for them, but so are lots of other things like taking a walk, relaxing on the couch, playing with your other dog, or watching squirrels through the kitchen window. Their training drive is satiated easily, and then they are ready to move on to a different activity. If you have a dog like this, less can be more: rather than training 3 sessions a day, train only 1 or 2! And instead of training 7 days a week, take the weekends off! Reducing training time and keeping sessions extra short can boost the motivation of a lower-drive dog. Of course, reducing training time doesn’t mean that you can’t spend as much time with your dog as you want – it just means that instead of spending every free minute training, you’ll have a cuddle session on the couch or a nice walk instead.

What are the primary and secondary reinforcers in your dog’s life? How could you manipulate them in terms of satiation/deprivation? And where is that sweet spot of strongest possible reinforcer, best performance, and an ethical training session?

These are just some of the questions we’ll be looking at in my upcoming FDSA class, May the reinforce be with you! We’ll also talk about marker words and reward placement, how to select reinforcers based on the emotional state you are looking for, and how sometimes, small changes to your reinforcement protocol can have a big impact on your dog’s precision and enthusiasm. Join me in class if that’s your kind of geeky!

Leave a Reply