Positive Reinforcement: The Dog-Friendly Way to Train Your Dog
It is the only training method that guarantees a smooth symbiosis with our dogs.
Photo by Damir Spanic
If you want to be your dog’s trainer, which is very doable, positive reinforcement is the way-to-go. Positive Reinforcement is the method that most dog trainers in the world recommend as everybody’s primary method of training. It is the only method that guarantees a smooth symbiosis with our dogs.
What is positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a powerful method of teaching that introduces pleasant stimuli after a desired behavior occurs. In dog training, it works by rewarding a dog for offering a behavior that we, the handlers, want to encourage. Rewards may include treats, praises, toys, games, etc.
Positive reinforcement relies on the simple notion that dogs are more likely to repeat behaviors that associate with pleasant consequences. Basic ’cause and effect’ stuff.
The word positive, as in math, refers to something being added (the reward), and the word reinforcement to the behavior we want to encourage. For example, softly but firmly say ”come”, then give a treat only when the dog comes. The treat is the added stimulus and the successful response to our command ”come” is the behavior you want to reinforce.
See the sequence of events? Cue, response and reward. This sequence changes when we teach a new behavior or trick. In this case we ”tell” a dog that we have treats. This lures them to the behavior we want them to perform.
Positive reinforcement values kindness and cooperation. Desirable behaviors followed by desirable consequences. Quite positive, indeed.
A quick lesson of history
Positive reinforcement was not always the way people trained their dogs. Until only a few decades ago, praise was seen as a weakness.
The limited scientific understanding and the belief that humans are superior to all nature resulted in a faulty mentality. Dominance was the primary method of training dogs. Pain and other aversive methods were the normal.
Positive reinforcement made its first appearance in dog training literature after WWII, when ”owning” a dog was beginning to look familiar to the modern-day dog parent. During that time dog training became somewhat more available to the public.
In the 60s, a few prolific trainers stressed that fun should be an integral part of the training process of pet dogs. They paved the way for the idea that dogs are family members.
By the 80s, several trainers and behaviorists were beginning to promote a more positive approach. They advised proper socialization for puppies. They also recommended dog owners to be more involved in the process.
The 90s was a revolutionary decade in dog training. No more training a dog was seen as mastering them. More and more trainers were beginning to adopt a holistic approach in which behaviorists were part of it. Dogs earned their place in the family. People were not owners but parents.
Today, the majority of the dog training community choose positive reinforcement as their primary method. Trainers who use painful methods for teaching dogs are seen as outdated and even abusive.
The bridge between Science and dog training is established.
The psychology of positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is one of the four types of operant conditioning model. According to this model, dogs (and other animals, including humans) can learn to develop desired behaviors that associate with pleasant consequences or learn to unlearn undesired behaviors that associate with unpleasant consequences.
Let’s see the four types of operant conditioning:
- Positive reinforcement. A pleasant stimulus follows the desired behavior. We give praises to the puppy that just pooped in the designated area.
- Negative reinforcement. An unpleasant stimulus is removed when the desired behavior occurs. The handler restrains the dog until the dog is calm, and then the restraint is removed. Negative refers to something that we remove (the restraint) when a desired behavior occurs (the dog is calm).
- Positive punishment. An unpleasant stimulus follows the undesired behavior. Dog jumps on visitors and the handler shouts to the dog. Again, positive refers to the addition of shouting.
- Negative punishment. A pleasant stimulus is removed when the undesired behavior occurs. The dog eats poop from the ground and the playtime is over. Negative refers to the playtime being over.
*In operant terminology the words positive and negative are used in their mathematical sense. They mean addition and abstraction. Likewise, punishment, in the context of operant conditioning, is a technical term that means the introduction of a consequence after a particular behavior to make it less likely to reoccur. While this leaves room for abuse, as it has, it doesn’t mean that punishment, if wisely used, is abusive in its nature.
When we train our dogs, i.e., when built our future dogs, details matter because they matter to dogs. Training is the way we communicate with our dogs, and for that, all dog parents need an in-depth understanding.”
Key-points and clarifications:
1. Reinforcement guides towards the desired behavior
When trainers use positive reinforcement, they focus entirely on the behaviors they want to encourage. They deal with undesirable behaviors using punitive methods or not deal at all. The latter is the ”all-positive” approach.
2. All-positive training
All-positive trainers claim that reward-based training is enough on its own and that corrections and punitive methods are not necessary or humane. As much as I value and recommend positive reinforcement as everybody’s primary method of training, I strongly disagree with the all-positive approach. While positive training can be enough for some dogs and their people, it won’t be sufficient for everybody. A balanced approach is recommended.
I use negative punishment to show my dog that unpleasant consequences happen when she is not complying with my guidance. For example, when Aria is not following directions, even though she fully understands what it is being asked, the off-leash time is over. No aggression, no force. Just an introduction of a bad consequence. A result of her own actions. Nothing inhumane.
As Ed Frawley from Leerburd explains: ”There will be a time in every dog’s life when the distractions that the dog faces are more interesting to the dog than the high-value reward the handler is offering for compliance to a known command. At that point and time, that dog needs to know that there are consequences for not following directions when it fully understands what it is being asked.”
As our dogs’ guardians and protectors, we must keep in mind that in many cases, failure to respond to our commands can be dangerous for dogs. Dogs that don’t act in certain ways may face far worse consequences than a mild correction or punishment. All-positive trainers fail to address this convincingly.
3. Positive as in positivity
In operant terms, positive means addition. However, to say positive reinforcement training is an entirely positive experience for dogs is not misleading at all. This is the most dog-friendly way to teach your dog new behaviors.
Positive reinforcement regards and respects a dog’s enthusiastic and curious nature. It acknowledges a dog’s talent to find fun in everything around them. With positive reinforcement you won’t have just an obedient dog, but a partner in fun.
4. Food as a reinforcer
Food is the king of all reinforcers. It is by far the easiest way to get most dogs’ attention fixed on you. I can teach my dog Aria to be a juggling master in exchange for a daily hot dog.
However, food that is used as a bribe holds no power when absent.
A common complaint among dog parents is that their dogs will only cooperate when they know food is in hand. Trainers are very cautious and specific when they recommend food as a rewarding system. Don’t get this wrong. Food is a powerful reinforcer for most dogs. It works fine when we introduce a new behavior and only after the behavior occurs, never before. However, it loses its significance if we use it as a bribe or forever.
After the behavior is somewhat established food rewards should start to phase out.
The best way to do so is to add a food reward at a variable schedule or introduce secondary reinforcers.
5. Variable reinforcement schedule
If you continue giving a treat every single time your dog offers a behavior you like, the dog will lose interest, and the behavior will extinct. After you establish a behavior, reduce the rate in which you give a reward. A good reinforcement schedule is a reward after three to five times your dog is successful in responding to your commands. This way, the reward does not lose its significance, and the dog stays motivated to do the right thing. Another variation of this idea is random rewards.
6. Random rewards
Random rewards mean that you show your approval every time your dog is a ‘good dog’. Do not reserve rewards only for your training sessions and your commands. Positive reinforcement should be part of your ongoing interaction with your dog, but keep it targeted so that you keep reinforcing good manners.
You won’t a have hard time doing this. Let your dog know you liked how well they interacted with the new dog they just met, how they stayed calm in a situation they usually aren’t. Give them a treat or praise when they are nice while on the leash, or when they stay around you while off-leash.
7. Real-life rewards
Real-life rewards are a convenient way to reinforce behaviors out of the context of formal training. Everything that your dog likes during the course of a normal day can be a real-life reward for a behavior you want to reinforce
When Aria learned to sit, we moved on to the next command/signal. Training devices are reserved for new goals. ”Sit” was well established. ”Sit”, and other known commands, now happen before we open the balcony door for her, before we put food on her bowl, before she gets on the couch, eth. Everything she loves is a chance to reinforce her responses.
8. Consistency and patience
The ugly reason why so many of us keep going back to punitive and aversive methods when dealing with our dogs is that it is an instant correction for the dog and instant gratification for us. If you use positive reinforcement as your primary method of training (which is highly recommended), you must think in future terms. Training a dog is a long-term plan that requires patience and consistency.
I truly regret the times that I lost my temper when Aria was not doing what I wanted her to be doing and made her feel stressed about the activity.
Do not train your dog with frustration. A change in your tone will give confusing signals. Best thing to do at times when your dog is hyper, distracted or tired is not to worry about it and take it from the top or to stop and carry on later or tomorrow. Remember that you are dealing with a highly enthusiastic animal that gets very easily distracted. Your dog needs a stable leader. You don’t want to fail them on that.
9. Be involved with your dog(s) daily
Do not expect a highly responsive dog if what she gets from you is 15 min walks around the block and back. Do not expect positive reinforcement to bring any results if you are not involved with your dog daily.
Dogs view us as resource controllers. As such you get to be a generous leader or a passive oppressor. You know which one of the two dogs enjoy being around. Resources include anything that your dog needs or enjoys: food, water, shelter, games, toys, walks, treats, being off-leash, socialization, looking out the window, being allowed on the couch/bed, eth. Deprived dogs are not happy. Unhappy dogs do not behave well and develop problematic behaviors. You’ve got to rethink your ways before you blame it on the dog.
The first six months of a dog’s life are character-building, so you better start their training early. The first two years are relationship-building, so you better be trustworthy.
10. Negative punishment complements positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement for showing the right way. Negative punishment for showing disapproval. Simply the best way to start your dog’s training. Reserve harder methods for when the situation is out of control. (Seek professional guidance)
Training with positive reinforcement and correcting with negative punishment minimizes the chances that those out of control situations will ever come.
This combination ensures you leave cruelty out. With positive reinforcement, we build relationships based on cooperation and kindness. With negative reinforcement, we show that unpleasant consequences are part of everybody’s life. The latter is a law of nature. We don’t argue with Nature.
Final thought: positive reinforcement builds relationships based on trust and cooperation
Most people are hardwired to think they should be their dogs’ masters. Decades of bad mentality makes over-correcting our dogs look normal. Punitive and aversive methods will make you look unworthy of their trust, especially when a strong foundation of trust and cooperation in the relationship is not present. It is a recipe for fearful dogs and stress-related syndromes.
Dogs have a natural desire to do the right thing. When trained with positive reinforcement, they do exactly that. They learn to offer the desired behavior because they want to and not because they fear bad consequences. There is absolutely no reason to use punitive and aversive methods in situations where positive reinforcement can get you to the goal. You should reserve punishment and negative reinforcement for more targeted use, and even then, do it wisely so that you don’t violate your dogs’ trust.
Positive reinforcement is, no doubt, the best option for strengthening the bond we share with our dog(s). There is undeniable evidence for that. It’s our way to speak the Dog language and dogs’ only chance to be their best versions.
Positive reinforcement should be our first choice of training.
- Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare.
- Purely Positive, Force Free, and Science.
- The Evolution of Modern-Day Dog Training & Obedience