Some Thoughts on Training with Positive Reinforcement

In a world full of buzz-words and marketing messages, it sure pays off to put on the breaks every now and then to reassess what we mean behind marketing messages such as training with “positive” techniques and even our own philosophies.

The term “positive reinforcement” is one of those terms that needs clarification.

In essence, as the behavioral sciences describe it, positive reinforcement implies that we are reinforcing (presenting something the animal wants) as a consequence for a given behavior. The Laws of Learning tells us that whatever we reinforce we will see more of. Okay, I get it… eye-rolling material, I know. So moving on, here are my own thoughts as to why I train this way.

What I love about using something the animal wants to teach him new stuff is that the animal is not being threatened or afraid by my interaction with him/her. My personal contract with this dog is that I will respect him as another sentient being and as such we are going to have some sort of a “conversation”.

This conversation is about communicating to the dog as clearly as possible in a manner the dog can understand what I want, and pay handsomely when this happens.

If for some reason the animal is not willing to do as asked (not about being stubborn as popular “knowledge” suggests, but more about the animal feeling safe and being motivated to do so) I will request for something else that the dog can do and reward for that behavior. I can always come back – almost immediately and ask for what I initially requested. By using this methodology (technically called counter-command) I do not need to engage in a battle of the species with the dog. This makes me feel selfishly happy.

When we abide and correctly implement the principles of learning theory – the science of how animals learn – which for some odd reason is still called a “theory” to teach animals, the animal learns with less stress and because of this the process of learning is more enjoyable for both parties. Science and empathy hand in hand.
The use of reinforcers (rewards in everyday parlance) not only transforms the relationship between trainer and dog, but it also builds a strong history of reinforcement.

The best way to describe history of reinforcement is to think of money in the bank that the person can withdraw when needed. The more money in the bank the more we can withdraw. Aside from the idea of withdrawing money from an account, the history of reinforcement makes the behavior that has been paid over and over and over again very strong. So in the future when I want the dog to engage in a behavior, the better the chances the dog will do so.

The reality is that if we want to have our dogs (or any animal – including us human/animals) to continue to engage in certain behaviors we must continue to reinforce for them.

Now, this does not mean that we need to have a training bag attached to us 24/7! It does mean however, that we must continue with the conversation in which we keep making requests and we follow by a consequence. This is vastly important! If there are no consequences for the learner then learning will not take place.

So, how does positive reinforcement works in “real life”? My preference is to use in addition to the counter-command the removal or what the dog wants as a consequence for no-performance.

Say that I ask a dog to wait at the front door, meaning that I do not want the dog to move forward until he is released. The dog moves forward and I close the door. So the consequence for the dog moving forward i.e.: lack of impulse control is that the dog does not get to go outside which is what the dog wanted to do in the first place.

Learning to apply consequences that are effective and fair takes some practice, but there is no reason why it cannot be learned. For me at least, training with positive reinforcement also implies constantly reassessing the learning process from the perspective of the individual and to make adjustments so that the dog is as much as possible a willing participant. This last piece brings me to the topic of motivation.

When a dog is not partaking in my request I immediately switch to thinking as to how I can get the dog to want to do what I asked. In other words, dogs, just like people, must find their own reason (motivation) for doing something. So the aim here is not to get testy with the dog but to act smart by realizing that dogs, like us, have specifics desires and needs at a given moment. Our teaching will soar to new heights when we understand this because after all, all animals have self-centered needs and “wants,” and if it wasn’t so the animal won’t be alive for long!