Why positive reinforcement isn’t what you think it is…

The words reinforcement and punishment are thrown around a lot in dog training, but do you really know what they mean and how to make use of them?

Dog trainers often make a big deal of calling themselves “Positive Reinforcement Based Trainers” and I get it, they want to make the point that they train in kind ways; but after you read this post, I think you’ll understand why that title doesn’t actually mean much at all. Bare with me…

closeup photo of brown dachshund

“What do you mean Gemma? Reinforcement = good and punishment = bad, right?”

Sorry, it just isn’t that simple! I’m not going to go too technical, but I’m going to give you some stuff to think about.

We often think of positive reinforcement as giving our dogs food in return for performing behaviours, this could be from their dinner to bits of chopped up steak, so is it all positive reinforcement? Here’s the thing, it’s not up to us!

Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus, in order to increase behaviour.

School of canine science/ b.f. skinner

Let’s have a think about that definition. “The addition of a stimulus”, that could mean giving our dogs a snack, or a ball, “in order to increase behaviour”, now that’s where we lose the choice of what is positive reinforcement or not, it’s up to our dogs. If you are teaching your dog to sit with blueberries, but they don’t sit more than they did before following 20 blueberries, then they haven’t been positively reinforced. This is definitely something to watch out for in training, just because the treat is being swallowed doesn’t mean it’s having a reinforcement effect.

So is positive reinforcement always kind?

I think you know where I’m going now. Let’s go back to that definition- addition of a stimulus which increases behaviour. *Don’t do this- this is purely an example* What if your dog bites you, and you hit your dog, and it bites you again? Yep! You have positively reinforced the biting by hitting. *Please don’t hit your dog*. Keep scrolling to find out how you can make positive reinforcement work for you.

dalmatian sitting white surface

We want to be kind to our dogs, and do good training! So what can we do?

We can still use positive reinforcement! We just need to make sure that our dogs are the ones deciding what is reinforcing and what isn’t.

How can you tell? Do they do the behaviour you’re teaching more or not? If not, we’ll need to find something else that works.

For food treats I like to do a treat tournament/ buffet. I get a load of different types of treats- sausages, cheese, blueberries, JR pate, frankfurters, chicken etc and I pick 2 at a time. I ask my dog to sit and give them one of the treats, repeat and give them the other, then again and this time I give them the choice. The one they choose moves on to the next round with a different treat until they have chosen their favourite out of all of them. That will give you a pretty good idea of what treats they may find reinforcing and you can use those favourites for the really important stuff, like recall. But bare in mind that just like us, some days they’ll have different tastes to other days. One day I’m hankering for a pizza and the next a curry, so make sure what you’re offering that day is what they’re hankering….

What about stuff that isn’t food?

As you should now know, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to mean food, so how do you figure out what is reinforcing to your dog? Watch them! What do they often choose to do? Do they love swimming, sniffing or running? You can use those as rewards too! Check out this video of me and Reef.

Reef loves running and pottering around, so I ask him for a recall and his reinforcement for recalling is getting to go play again. I know it’s working as positive reinforcement because he always came back when I called on that walk, just to get to go play again. You could use anything your dog loves here, recall and let them run into the sea, recall then let them loose to go play with their friend. You don’t need to use so much food in training when you can use the things they love doing in the environment.

So that’s why I don’t label myself a Positive Reinforcement Trainer. Yes I use training methods that align with my ethics, there’s just so much more to the labels than we give them credit for. I hope you’ve learnt a bit from this blog and have gotten some inspiration on how to tell what your dog really does find reinforcing.

Got any questions? Let me know!

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