Positive reinforcement training: What is it?

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Positive Reinforcement (R+) training refers to training done by rewarding the behaviors that you want rather than punishing the behaviors you don’t want. Dogs do what works, and if jumping and barking results in the attention that they so badly want (even negative attention is STILL attention), they will repeat that behavior. However, if you teach your dog an acceptable behavior that is not compatible with jumping or barking, such as sit or quiet, you will be able to reward that behavior. Soon your dog will be offering the rewardable behavior on a regular basis… because… dogs do what works! And now you will have behaviors that are acceptable for you AND rewardable for your dog.

Training should always be a pleasurable experience, both for you and your dog. The more clearly you understand just how a dog thinks and learns, the more effectively you can communicate with him. Communication is vital to successful training, and will help build the dog/human bond that owners want. With positive training, there is no need for relationship-damaging physical corrections and punishments.

The Science Behind the Positive

Modern behavioral science has proven that forceful handling such as physical punishment, leash yanking, or making a dog submit by rolling it on its back is psychologically damaging for the dog and has potentially dangerous consequences for owners. Instead, the most successful modern training theories suggest that reinforcing good behavior with rewards while using constructive discipline is much more successful. Positive reinforcement (i.e., giving the dog a reward in the form of praise, play, food, toys, etc. when it responds and offers an action or a behavior that you like) has been shown to be the most effective way to train a dog because rewarding good behavior will increase the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. Similarly, the use of constructive discipline (marking bad behavior by using vocal sounds to interrupt the behavior and refocus the dog onto something more positive, “time-outs” or simply ignoring the dog) ensures that the dog learns which behavior is linked to the negative consequences of the discipline and is therefore less likely to repeat the behavior.

Dogs learn by association; both “good” associations and “bad” associations are driving forces in dog behavior. When a specific behavior is followed by something rewarding, the dog learns that in the future, if he offers that same behavior, he will likely be rewarded. It is therefore in the dog’s best interest to continue offering that behavior. Conversely, if that same behavior is paired with something unpleasant, i.e. a leash jerk or forceful handling, he will learn to fear or avoid the punishment, usually by avoiding the punisher! Sadly, it often seems like this type of training works, but in the long run, it causes fear, stress and confusion to the dog.

Treats Forever? While positive trainers frequently use food rewards in training, they also know that dog owners don’t want to walk around with hot dogs in their pockets for a lifetime! It is important to know that the pairing of a delicious treat is a great way to jumpstart a new behavior, but as the training progresses, real-life rewards and random reinforcement can be introduced.

Real-life Rewards are anything that your dog wants or likes. Food is almost always high on his list of priorities, but you can begin to substitute toys, play, the ability to sniff a really great spot, etc. Use your imagination to think of what things will motivate your dog to pay attention to you.

Random Reinforcement means using rewards like a lottery. If you play Lotto, you know that you won’t win every time, but you keep playing in the hope that occasionally it will pay off. Your dog will actually work best with this system. He should offer behaviors on the chance that it will result in a reward. And sometimes, he may do something extraordinary that will result in a jackpot!

Training should be fun! Keep sessions short – Three to five minutes, two or three times a day is fine. Focus on no more than one new behavior per session. Don’t train when YOU aren’t in the mood. End every session on a good note – make sure your dog does something rewardable before you quit. And always remember to incorporate the behaviors that your dog has learned in his everyday routine!

Cynthia Gordon CPDT-KA is a Victoria Stilwell-Approved Positively Trainer. Check out her website: Gentle Touch Dog Training. Gordon is an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, APDT Professional Member, Tellington TTouch Practitioner Apprentice Examiner and member of the American Temperament Testing Society.

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