What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to train dogs (or any animal for that matter). We often hear trainers say “I use positive reinforcement in my training!” or “I use reward based methods!” But what does all of this really mean? Let’s break it down. 

“Positive” means we are adding something. 

“Reinforcement” means the behavior strengthens or increases in frequency.

So Positive Reinforcement just means that we are adding something desirable or pleasant (i.e. a treat, pets, or a game of tug) after a certain behavior (sitting, laying down, or giving a paw). The desirable thing reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to occur again. 

What Should I Use to Reward My Dog?

The most common reward for positive reinforcement training is food. Most dogs are fairly food motivated. Some dogs are so food motivated that they will literally work for anything, even their kibble. Other dogs will only work for really high quality treats or pieces of meat or cheese. 90% of the time, you will find some type of food reward that your pup will work for. “But what about the other 10%? My dog doesn’t work for any food!” I’m getting there! Every dog has something that they will do anything to get. I onced worked with a Golden Retriever, Ash, who would live and breathe with a ball in his mouth. He LOVED to play fetch. When I went in for our first session my client said that he couldn’t get him to do anything for food. He had even tried pieces of cut up steak and chicken. Nothing. I asked him if there was anything Ash really enjoyed. I gave examples of belly rubs, tug of war, chewing on bully sticks, etc. Fetch was Ash’s thing. I picked up a ball and immediately had Ash’s full attention. I asked him to sit and once he did, I threw him the ball. The reward in this situation for Ash was getting to play fetch. We were able to get Ash to do anything we wanted if we just threw him the ball. If your dog isn’t food motivated, you need to find something that your dog really enjoys and use that to your advantage. 

What Is Not Positive Reinforcement? 

People sometimes misuse the term “positive reinforcement” to mean when something unpleasant stops. It’s not the same. This is something called Negative Reinforcement. Negative Reinforcement is when something is taken away and there is a return to comfort or a relief. Relief is not the same as a reward and should not be treated as such. For example some trainers pretend that when they are using a shock collar on the dog and the shock stops, it’s rewarding for the dog. It is not rewarding. It’s a relief.

There are two types of training that are commonly used. The first is Negative Punishment. It is usually considered humane when it is used carefully and sparingly. Negative Punishment is when you take away a reward to show a dog that her behavior led to an unwanted consequence. For example, if your dog chews on her leash while walking and you have two leashes attached, you drop the one she’s chewing on so the game of tug just doesn’t happen. The last kind of training is called Positive Punishment. This is one of the most harmful forms of training as it will cause a loss of trust between you and your dog and could cause some major defensive aggression down the road. This type of training triggers emotions that slow and prevent learning (frustration, fear, discomfort, and pain). Examples of this include yelling at your dog, grabbing their scruff, hitting the dog, etc. 

Remember: Positive Reinforcement is when something rewarding and desirable is added to increase the likelihood of a behavior. 

  • Positive Reinforcement = Delight

  • Negative Punishment = Disappointment 

  • Positive Punishment = Pain/Fear

  • Negative Reinforcement = Relief 

Because there is no regulation of dog trainers, these are unfortunately something that all dog owners need to be cautious of. There’s a lot of dog trainers using out of date methods to train your pups that often do more harm than good. Ask questions and make sure your trainer doesn’t use any harmful training methods!

“But I Tried Positive Reinforcement and It Didn’t Work”

There’s several possibilities as to why it didn’t work: 

The most common mistake is not using the right reward to motivate your pup. Try different reward methods. See what works best for each individual dog. 

Maybe you are making it up as you go instead of using a plan. Follow a plan and you’ll get better results. 

Maybe the reward isn’t happening fast enough. You want to deliver the reward the instant the behavior happens. If you wait even a second longer, the dog won’t begin to associate the behavior and the reward. If you ask your dog to lay down and she does. Then you reach for a treat and she’s already jumped back up on all four paws, you’ve missed your window. She’s not going to understand what behavior got her the treat. The quickest and best way to do this is to use a clicker or a clicker word the second the behavior is done, followed by a treat. 

Maybe (because you know you need to deliver the reward quickly) your hand is already moving to the treat before your pup has actually done the behavior. Your dog will focus on the treat instead of the task you are asking them to do. I like to have a few treats in my hand already and put the treat hand behind my back. This way, I can quickly deliver the reward after my clicker word “Yes!” and the dog isn’t focused on the treats because they are hidden.

Or, maybe you’re just going too fast for the dog. When we train, we need to meet our pups where they are. This also means going at their pace. It’s common for owners to think their dog has got something once they’ve done it once or twice. But just like people, dogs need constant practice to really master something. 

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