Much of what we do in everyday life is all about choices. At any given moment we can work, or we can do something more pleasurable, let’s say take our dogs for a walk. We can choose to do some work or train our dogs. We could then go to the beach or go to the store. We could food shop or go for a massage. We could deposit money in our bank account or buy a lottery ticket. We could train our own dogs or schedule a session with a client.

There are a number of variables that exert control over our responding in these choice situations such as the reinforcement rate, the quality of the reinforcer, the reinforcement magnitude, and whether there is a delay with the reinforcement. For example, if working at the computer can be done now but scheduling an appointment with a client is not urgent then your choice will probably be to work at your computer. However, if the client appointment has a deadline and you are due to get paid by them for 8 x one-hour lessons then you are more likely to schedule the appointment now as the reinforcement has greater magnitude or is qualitatively a more potent reinforcer (even though it is delayed).

Choice situations arise when concurrent schedules of reinforcement are available in our environment. Training dogs, visiting the spa, going to the beach, working at your computer, these all operate on their own schedule of reinforcement. But there is a choice between the response alternatives.

One phenomenon which was identified in laboratory studies using non-humans is the “matching law.” The matching law theorizes that given two concurrently available response alternatives the relative rate of responding equals the relative rate of reinforcement. In other words, if there are two response options and response option 1 provides two times the rate of reinforcement provided by option 2 then there will be two times the rate of responding on option 1 as opposed to option 2.

Here is an example: Consider the possibility that you need to speak to a friend, and there are two telephone numbers available for this friend, home or cell. If, in your experience, you are twice as likely to get through to your friend on the cell number as you are on the home number then you are likely to call the cell number twice as often as you would the home number. This is matching law.

So how does this affect how we train our dogs? We have all heard of errorless learning. At DogNostics we believe guided learning leads to errorless learning. Guided learning is essential during the acquisition phase of teaching any new behavior. During this learning phase, we should offer our dogs as much help and assistance as possible, as the more often the dog gets it right, the more reinforcement they receive and the more likely they are to choose that response in the future!

Let’s look at the “sit” behavior. In a training session we can “lure” or we can “capture” but ask yourself the following questions: How many “sits” can you lure and reinforce in 60 seconds? How many “sits” can you capture and reinforce in 60 seconds? More importantly, when you are not offering guided learning in between your capture trials, don’t be fooled into thinking your dog is not getting reinforced for sniffing, standing, moving, breathing, looking at you! Your dog is getting reinforcement from somewhere, elsewhere, everywhere. Yes, a concurrent schedule!

To sum up: The matching law says that animals perform behaviors in a ratio that matches the ratio of available reinforcement for those behaviors – Organisms demonstrate preference for the most reinforcing events/settings – behavior matches reinforcement!

The implicit implications of the matching law regarding the power of switching contingencies from favoring one response alternative (e.g., problem behavior) to another (e.g., desired behaviors) offer hope in the treatment of problem behaviors, as well as in the acquisition of socially important skills. – The Matching Law: A Tutorial for Practitioners

Herrnstein, R.J. (1970). On the law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13, 243–66.

Reed, D. D., & Kaplan, B. A. (2011). The matching law: a tutorial for practitioners. Behavior analysis in practice4(2), 15–24.

Further reading: Anderson, E. (2018). Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules