Why Use Positive Reinforcement?

Positive Reinforcement helps a dog to feel happy, secure and settled in life. Dog training which uses this is most ethical
Positive Reinforcement helps to create a happy, secure dog.

Okay, so I tell you all that I am a positive reinforcement trainer. I tell you that I use this method as the most ethical and efficient means to an end. I tell you that relationship, play and engagement are the basis to every successful training session. But why?

So first I am going to give a brief description of what positive reinforcement actually means. It is not a license for a dog to do what it wants. It is not me saying that a dog won’t be trained to a high standard. It is not all about throwing treats to a dog for looking beautiful and hoping that by magic the dog will understand what I want. These are myths perpetuated by trainers who do not understand the actual, scientific definition of positive reinforcement.  (Although I have been known to give Ocean a treat ‘for looking beautiful’. Not ashamed.)

Positive Reinforcement is one quadrant of the Four Quadrants of Operant Learning, as first described by BF Skinner in the early 20th Century. The four quadrants are shown in the pictogram. Briefly described the ‘positive’ means adding something, and ‘negative’ means taking something away. On the other side ‘reinforcement’ means to encourage a behaviour and ‘punishment’ is to decrease a behaviour. So Positive Reinforcement adds something to increase the likelihood of a behaviour. Such as praise, treats, chocolate cake, a game of tug (really depends on the species you are training. I train best with chocolate cake, but please don’t give this to your dog.)

Operant Conditioning Quadrants

Positive Punishment is adding something to decrease a behaviour, such as a spank, tap on the nose, shaking of a bottle of gravel, citronella spray etc etc.

 Negative punishment takes something away to decrease the behaviour, such as offering me a chocolate cake, and then when I do something wrong, whipping it out from underneath my nose. This is the second least aversive method of the quadrants.

Negative reinforcement – even though it uses the word reinforcement – is fairly horrible in its use. I am sure you can guess by now that it is taking something away to increase a behaviour. The most familiar use of this method is the ‘force fetch’ in which a dogs ear is pinched or crushed until the dog opens his mouth and accepts a hunting ‘dummy’. Thus the dog associates the ease of pain with holding something in his mouth, and will try to keep his mouth full.

So, that’s the quick explanation of the What. If you are still with me, lets get into the Why.

I gave birth to two baby boys in October. Their constant crying really demonstrated to me the powerlessness of a dogs situation when in training.

I didn’t know why they were crying. I had a repertoire of several things to try to calm them (food, cuddles, sleep, burping, massaging their tummy etc) and all I could do is keep running down the list as they got louder and louder, trying to find what it is that they wanted, to make them stop. Even if you don’t have children, I am sure you have heard the plaintive cry of ‘I wish you would just tell me what you want!’

As the babies got older they smiled at me, laughed with me, clapped their hands at me and other quite cute little nothings, which gave me that positive reinforcement that what I was doing was what they wanted.

Now imagine your dog living with someone who doesn’t give any reinforcement. Trapped in a life without even that little smile to look forward to. Constantly having to run through a repertoire of behaviours to see which would appease their owner. God forbid the owner tries to teach them anything new, as how on earth are they supposed to work out that something new must be added to the repertoire to stop the punishment?!

I hope I am exaggerating, as why would anyone get a dog to never even share a smile or a cuddle, but think how confusing it is for the dog.

So my approach? Teach the dog what you want them to do. Don’t tell people not to think of pink elephants and then hit them when they do. Its setting your dog up for failure, as you have to wait for the failure to punish them to guide them to the correct response. Do I want you to chew on a chew toy rather than the skirting board? Well I best teach you what the chew toy is for, and a cue to use it too. Do I want you to put your bum on the ground when I say ‘sit’? Well I best teach you how to put your bum on the ground first.

Positive reinforcement is not about carrying treats with you for the rest of your life. Lots of people will do the method a disservice by saying ‘ my dog should do what I want, because it wants to please me’. Well you know what? I want to please my baby too – but it’s a lot easier to do when I know what pleases him!

My dog always wants to please me. She also always wants to go training, to learn new tricks, to go to competition and to just interact with me. And I let her know when she has pleased me with a toy, a game, tug, a big cuddle, when I let her lick my face (sorry, not sorry) when I let her free run in a field of seagulls, or when I throw her a treat (even if it is just her beauty which has overcome my better training self).

Positive Reinforcement is teaching the dog the correct behaviour first, and only allowing that to be reinforced. It is about managing the environment and the dog so that ‘inappropriate’ behaviours cannot be practiced and ‘appropriate’ behaviours become second nature due to the reinforcement history. Its about understanding the difference between training and the real world. You train your behaviours before you expect them to work in the real world, whether that’s in the competition ring, or recalling away from running deer. It is about training whilst building trust, fun and loyalty between you and your dog.

Otherwise, why on earth did you get a dog in the first place??

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