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Positive Reinforcement: What it is and how it works
August 25, 2015
Right on Cue Dog Training is committed, and has professionally pledged, to only use methods based on positive reinforcement. We do not use fear or force when training your dog how to do something, nor will we ever instruct you to use punishment-based or forceful training methods.
Most simply, we use positive reinforcement training because it works. It is effective and enjoyable for everyone involved. We know positive training is pretty different from traditional training methods, which require "asserting dominance" over your dog and establishing household rules by enforcing harsh punishments. However, the science behind those traditional methods has been disproven, and many people still don't realize there is now a better alternative to training. So, we thought before we posted anything else we would explain what positive reinforcement training is, and how it works so well.
Positive reinforcement (specifically clicker training) was first utilized by marine mammal trainers who, by necessity, had to develop a hands-off training method for their animals (because let’s be honest, pulling a whale around on a leash in order to teach it where to swim and how high to jump, just isn’t going to work.). These trainers discovered that learning is a process, and when it happens effectively, animals can choose to do certain behaviors at certain times-- no longer acting on just impulse and habit. This breakthrough eventually came to the world of dog training, and now the everyday pet owner has a way to achieve the well-mannered pet they have always been hoping for. And best of all, it is easier, safer, and more enjoyable for both the animal, and the trainer, than any training methods previously used.
Positive reinforcement training is based on operant conditioning, a learning theory developed by the scientist B.F Skinner. This well-studied theory explains that any behavior which occurs repeatedly, does so because it is somehow being reinforced by something which the learner desires. This is true for “good” behaviors and “bad” behaviors. An animal which received a treat the last 100 times it sat down, will very likely choose to sit down again-- because it has learned that that is how it gets what it wants (a treat). Similarly, if the last 100 times your dog barked while you were eating dinner, you turned around to tell it to be quiet, it will very likely bark again because it has learned that is how to get what it wants (your attention and human interaction).
People do this too! Every day millions of people wake up and choose to go to work because they know this will be the decision/behavior which results in getting what they want (a paycheck, the opportunity to do what they love, or the satisfaction of doing a job).
Sometimes, for both people and animals, a better option than the normal reinforcement will present itself. For people, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime concert which is happening the same day as a boring work meeting. For animals, it may be that particularly good smelling bush across the street at a moment when the trainer is asking for attention. As we are all well aware, most people (and dogs) will choose the action which gets them the best reward; sometimes, people skip work to go to the concert, and sometimes our dogs will ignore our instruction and lunge towards the good smelling bush. We as positive trainers use this decision making to our advantage by making sure the good behaviors are the ones which will consistently result in the best reward.
Our 100% positive training methods are built off of this theory. We acknowledge that despite our best efforts, our dogs could at any moment choose to do something we don't want them to. Rather than trying to assume that we will always be able to physically force them to do what we want, we teach them to choose to do good behaviors on their own.
We are not forcing the dog to sit down, we are simply giving the dog a choice: sit down (and get whatever reward is best at that moment) or remain standing (and absolutely nothing will happen). Our job as trainers is to teach the dog which behaviors
will pay off most, so that in a moment of decision (such as when we ask the dog for attention near a good smelling bush) we know the dog will reliably make a good decision (giving us that attention rather than lunging across the street to smell the bush).
How do we teach them which behaviors will pay off?; by manipulating the situation such that the dog will do the good behavior we are looking for, thus giving us the opportunity to repeatedly positively reinforce that behavior with treats, praise, or playtime. We do lots of very short training sessions every day, while always setting the dog up to be successful, by increasing the difficulty very slowly. The result is a dog that has a very reliable behavior (it has successfully been practiced hundreds of times) and is excited when asked to do the behavior (because it knows that it now has the opportunity to get a great treat!).
What about when the dog does something wrong?
If a dog is consistently doing an unwanted behavior, it is because that behavior is somehow getting them something they want. We as positive trainers eliminate these unwanted behaviors by first identifying and removing the thing that is reinforcing the behavior. Then, we change and manage the situation so that the dog doesn't have the opportunity to practice the unwanted behavior. Finally, we train the dog how to do a good behavior (in place of the unwanted behavior) which will earn it the reinforcement it wants.
Pet owners often expect their pets to automatically understand what they want them to do and not to do, then become frustrated when they misbehave and cause problems. The best way to make sure our dogs do not do something we don't want them to, is to be extremely realistic with what our dogs understand (or what they are capable of doing on any given day) and then put them in situations where they will be successful. If a dog is consistently doing something undesirable, then clearly (for a variety of possible reasons) that situation is too difficult for the dog to handle on that given day. We need to accept this, identify the issue, and train that issue regardless of what it seems like the dog “should know.”
Why is it so good?
Positive reinforcement training (when done properly) is effective. It results in animals which love to train and can learn things quickly. Since it does not require being bigger or stronger than your pet, it is easy and feasible for people of all ages and physical capabilities to do. At Right on Cue Dog Training, our goal of "wholesome goodness" means that we want your pet to be healthy, confident, and happy. We want you to be confident in understanding your dog's behavior and enjoying the wonderful benefits of pet ownership. Achieving those goals would not be possible without the use of positive reinforcement training. So grab a bag of treats or your dog's favorite toy, and let us show you how much your dog can do!