What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement involves giving your dog something she wants to make the behavior more likely to occur again. This occurs if asking your dog to sit and stay and giving her a reward (something the dog wants) for staying away from the biscuit on the table increases her likelihood of doing as asked again.  The use of positive reinforcement is the most humane and effective training method as it avoids undesirable behavioral side effects. It also makes training more enjoyable and helps to improve your bond with the pet.

Classical conditioning is an involuntary process that happens when your dog makes an association between a previously “neutral” object (such as a set of car keys) and a reflexive action or emotional response (such as the excitement of the possibility of going to the beach). Your dog has no control over her behavioral response.

Instrumental conditioning takes place when an association is made between a neutral stimulus (such as the word “sit”) and a voluntary response (placing bottom on ground). This type of behavior is modified by the consequence of your dog’s response. For example, if the consequence is rewarding, the behavior is more likely to increase in frequency. If the consequence of the chosen behavior is unrewarding to your dog, the behavior is likely to decrease in frequency.

Dogs, like all animals, learn to respond to stimuli that enhance the possibility of a good outcome. Rewarding means that your dog receives something it wants, or values, as a consequence of its behavior. These are called “reinforcers”.

Primary reinforcers are essential for survival, such as food, water and reproduction. Secondary reinforcers are neutral things such as words which have been associated with primary reinforcers to become desirable to your dog. For example, the words “good dog” or the sound of a clicker means nothing to her until she has associated it with a treat for example.

Examples of Reward Based Training Techniques

Scenario 1: Sassy jumps up to greet people.

Her owners have tried pushing her down and kneeing her to knock her off balance when she jumps. This has not worked, and in fact, she now jumps from further away to avoid the knee.

Training technique:  Sassy should be ignored if she jumps and only receive attention (including eye contact) when she has four paws on the ground. Only when she is standing or sitting should she be rewarded with attention and treats.

Scenario 2: Fred likes to sit on the kids’ artwork when they have it sprawled on the floor to color and often chews on the papers. They have tried pushing him away, saying “no” and chasing him when he chews on their papers.

Training technique: Fred can be lured onto a special mat or cushion with food and rewarded when he gets on the mat. When he takes a paper they can ask him to come to them, sit and then swap the paper for a tasty treat or chew toy. Ultimately they can treat him to “go to bed” and to “give”. Fred can be trained to go to his mat and stay there using lure and reward methods that will gradually build the duration he can remain settled there.

Scenario 3:  Pumpkin growls and bites her owner’s hand when she has her harness put on. The owner has tried pulling her hand away, saying “no” and smacking Pumpkin. The problem is getting worse and Pumpkin is biting sooner and harder.

Training technique: The owner should consider trying a collar instead of a harness, to remove the source of the problem and start a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization to the harness. This involves giving Pumpkin treats whenever she sees the harness (a distance away from her that does not cause her to growl). Gradually the harness can be brought closer, with treats given for calm, non-fearful behavior from Pumpkin. With correct timing and much repetition, Pumpkin will associate the harness with treats and be happy to see the harness. In tiny increments, the harness is brought closer and closer and eventually placed on Pumpkin. Pumpkin can also be taught with treats to enjoy being handled.

Adapted from the Australian Veterinary Association Website:  http://www.ava.com.au/