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Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior

Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior (DRO) is a positive reinforcement training technique used to decrease an undesirable behavior. It is one of the more “complicated” training concepts we’ve discussed on this website. I put “complicated” in quotes, because animal training is not complicated. 😉 Before you dive in to DRO, make sure you understand the basics of animal training and just in case you need it, here’s a quick refresher on reinforcement when training animals.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement/Punishment

Any good animal trainer will only rely on positive/negative reinforcement to shape an animal’s behavior. There is a common misconception that negative reinforcement is aversive to the animals. It is not. Negative reinforcement simply removes a stimulus from the environment in order to increase the frequency of a desired behavior. For example, suppose you have two dogs and Dog A growls when he is around Dog B. When both dogs are in the same room and Dog A isn’t growling we could negatively reinforce Dog A by moving Dog B to a new room.* Over time, Dog A will learn that when he isn’t growing at Dob B, good things happen – such as getting alone time.

*Of course, we are assuming that this is reinforcing to Dog A.

I do not condone, and actively fight against, the use of punishment when working with animals. Yet, plenty of “old school” and uninformed animal trainers rely on punishment to shape behavior. The use of punishment decreases the frequency of behavior. Yelling “no” at your dog is a form of positive punishment. (To get a full breakdown of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, please purchase a copy of Wear a Wetsuit at Work.)

When To Use DRO

When using Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior, or DRO, you will reinforce any behavior except the undesired behavior. Suppose a dolphin won’t stop splashing water at guests. You are not going to punish that animal for splashing water, so an alternative would be to reward any behavior that isn’t “splashing water.” If the dolphin is swimming, reward. If the dolphin is jumping, reward. If the dolphin is diving, reward. If the dolphin splashes, you do nothing. You reward anything OTHER than the undesirable behavior.

differential reinforcement of other behavior

[Some behaviorists and scholars define DRO as “…the delivery of reinforcement
when the target behavior has not occurred during a specific period of time. DRO procedures provide reinforcement for the absence or omission of a target behavior.”

This is a very simple concept that can sometimes be confuse aspiring marine mammal trainers because of the unnecessarily complicated title.

DRO Focuses On The Good

My favorite component of using DRO is that it brings the focus back on good, or desirable, behavior. It is very easy to get so focused on the undesirable behavior that people forget the quickest way to see less undesirable behavior is to focus, and reinforce, any behaviors you do like.

DRO is often used in marine mammal training, but can be used in a variety of other scenarios. For example, teachers working with children on the autism spectrum will often use DRO and DRA (Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative behavior) to shape behavior. DRA reinforces a specific behavior and only that specific behavior.

Check out this video on how DRO and DRA are used in teaching children! There is so much overlap in animal training and the real world. Animal training principles can be applied to teaching, relationships, work, and even aide in achieving your own goals and accomplishments.



Don’t Confuse DRO with DRI

DRI stands for Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior. This is very different from Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior. We will be releasing an article explaining DRI soon.