I've been reading Crystal's thought-provoking posts on Kathy Sdao's seminars at ClickerExpo, particularly in regards to why and how a cue may or may not be reinforcing to a dog. I think that there is a scale, of between one and ten, as to how reinforcing a cue is, and the position of each cue on this scale could be affected by a number of factors.
I would suggest two categories of reinforcing cues: naturally reinforcing and artificially reinforcing.
Naturally reinforcing cues (NRCs) would be cues given to behaviours a dog naturally does and enjoys - this could be permission to go and see a strange dog or person, sniffing, playing with a beloved toy, running, etc. Naming these behaviours would be helpful in following the Premack Principle; using a high probability behaviour to reinforce a low probability behaviour. Most NRCs would likely be taught through capturing, rather than luring or shaping, though they aren't exclusive to captured behaviours (the handler could easily shape a 'say hello' cue with a shy dog, for instance).
Artificially reinforcing cues (ARCs) are everything else. In order for a cue to be reinforcing, it must adhere to enough conditions that the dog genuinely enjoys performing it - not simply for the opportunity to get a reinforcer (food, a game, an environmental reward, etc) but for the opportunity to merely perform that behaviour.
I think there are a number of reasons, however, for why a cue may or may not be reinforcing:
- Inappropriate Motivation:
1: Something that might motivate the dog in one situation may not in another (e.g. kibble used in the house versus in a park full of strange dogs).
2: The rate of reinforcement may be too low, whether in regards to what the dog usually expects, or in regards to how 'costly' the behaviour is.
3: The dog may have been put on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement too quickly, or the schedule may be too low for the cost of the behaviour (e.g. the dog only getting a treat once every fifteen or so reps, whilst they still require a reinforcer every five or six times).
4. The handler may be attempting to reinforce the dog with something that they are indifferent to (e.g. a bland food rather than the more stinky, tasty reinforcers they are usually used to), or which is actually aversive for them (e.g. petting the dog on the head - few dgs enjoy that).
- Fear or Dislike of Consequences:
1. The dog may have been taught through positive punishment or negative reinforcement (e.g. pinching a dog's ear to train a forced retrieve will very likely not result in an ARC), which may result in the dog being fearful of the behaviour or of experimenting outside of the behaviours it knows strongly.
2. There may have been an environmental event following the giving of the cue that would result in a lack of enjoyment for it (e.g. the dog being asked to roll over on a slippery surface, and banging down too hard on its side). If the event happened frequently, this could effect the dog's overall enjoyment of the cue.
3. There may have been a one-time environmental consequence to the cue that has resulted in fear in the dog (e.g. a sound-sensitive dog first offered a 'spin' whilst being taught it, and a car backfired at the same time or immediately afterwards).
4. The dog may have been taught a behaviour through physical manipulation of their body, and disliked the coercive aspect of it, which lead to a weakening of the cue as a reinforcer (e.g. modelling a dog's sitting body up into a stand).
5. The dog may have grown bored of repeatedly being asked for the same behaviour, or was too distracted, or had grown bored of the reinforcer being used. If this occured frequently enough in training sessions, the cues that were being asked for at the time may be weakened in turn. The dog may also have been reprimanded for 'blowing off' the trainer (e.g. when showing stress signals when being cued to 'say hello' to a stranger), which would again result in a weakening cue.
- Genetic or Health-related Influences:
1. The dog may have a genetic influence that prevents their body from moving naturally in a certain way. Teaching this dog that behaviour would then likely result in a cue that is not a reinforcer (e.g. asking a greyhound to sit).
2. The dog may have a health influence which, again, prevents their body or mind from certain behaviours. If it was a condition that they gained later in life, being asked to do reps of a cue that was once a reinforcer may reduce its reinforcing status (e.g. asking a dog with hip dysplasia to sit perfectly straight, or to jump up and down).
- Personal Preferences:
1. The dog may, quite simply, have a personal dislike for a behaviour, either generally or situationally (e.g. a dog that is naturally very excited may dislike being cued to 'stay'). This could also change over time, as the dog ages and matures - for instance a dog may have enjoyed something greatly as a puppy, but may not when they are elderly.
- and Other:
1. The dog may have been asked to give the behaviour so much that it has become background noise; the dog appears to be listening and 'obeying', but is simply going through the motions (e.g. if the dog is asked to sit every time--and only every time--the handler stops mid-heel, the reinforcing nature of 'sit' may deteriorate as the dog simply pre-empts the trainer and performs the behaviour itself).
2. Alternatively to above, the dog may have been asked to give the behaviour so sparsely that it is no longer reinforcing. If the dog was taught a behaviour over a couple of days (even if there was a hugely high rate of reinforcement for it) and then not asked again for it for several years, the cue may have been all but forgotten - it is therefore no longer a reinforcer.