The Value of Positive Reinforcement

Chances are that most problems you have with your dog can be linked directly to the lack of structure in his or her life. So many issues are created by not teaching dogs the expectations you have for them, and this indirectly gives them permission to do anything they like. In its most basic form, life is about moving towards rewards and away from negative consequences. We work hard at our job because it rewards us with money, and (most people) avoid regularly skipping work because it leads to being fired. However, until we are aware of the outcomes for each one, these decisions cannot be made.  The same concept applies to dogs. When you clearly teach them which activities are beneficial and result in favorable outcomes and which ones are to be avoided, they can begin making the right choices and function as stable members of society.

If you don’t know much about how we train dogs other than the fact that we use prong collars and remote collars, you may not realize just how much we value positive reinforcement. It’s an amazing way to teach a dog what to do and helps immensely in our process.

WHAT IS POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT?

Consider a child being given a piece of candy every time she says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the right situations. If this process is repeated enough times, you will end up with the most polite kid in the neighborhood because she’ll have learned that good things happen when she uses her manners.  The girl has learned to repeat her actions through positive reinforcement: adding a reward to encourage a behavior. 

Rewards used for positive reinforcement can range from food and toys to smells, activities or praise. In reality, anything your dog likes is something that can be used as a reward for making the right choices. Examples of ways to reinforce a dog’s behavior can include giving your dog his food after he sits and waits for it, allowing him to smell a tree after he has given you his full attention, giving him verbal praise for coming to you, or many other different situations where the dog learns, “if I do this, good things happen.” 

Problems occur when you don’t realize that you’re reinforcing the wrong activities. When your dog pulls on the leash to meet another dog and, every time he pulls, you follow him and he gets to meet the other dog, you’re reinforcing his desire to pull. If he barks every time he see a squirrel and you start petting him while he’s excited in an attempt to tell him “it’s okay,” you’re increasing the value that the behavior already had. 

So you can see that even when you don’t realize you’re doing it, you’re almost always reinforcing a dog’s behavior in some way. However, when used consciously and correctly, positive reinforcement can be one of your greatest tools.

THE BENEFITS

Most owners who try to train their dogs have experienced some of the benefits of positive reinforcement. Whether you’re training for tricks, obedience, or even dog sports, it’s an easy and efficient way to teach dogs what to do. It creates enthusiasm for the task at hand (drive), develops confidence, builds a relationship with the human, teaches them that their choices matter, and is fun. When you teach a dog that she has the power to determine whether she receives a reward through obeying you, she begins to want to please you. 

HOW WE USE IT

The trainers at Dream Come True K9 believe in teaching a dog what to do way before teaching him whatnot to do. If you were teaching someone how to fly a plane for the first time, it wouldn’t make sense to put them directly into the cockpit and only wait for them to make a mistake before telling them, “don’t do that!” First, you would show them where to start. Once they understood and applied what you were telling them, you would add more complex instructions until they could eventually take the plane from the ground into the air and back down with no mistakes.

As with the pilot, we start small. We get the dog used to working for his food by teaching him that good things come directly from the trainer but not for free. The dog learns he has the ability to control whether he gets fed and it becomes almost like a game to him. We teach him markers (words like “good” and “yes” which tell the dog whether to keep doing what he is doing or to stop what he is doing and come get a reward) where he learns to listen to us, and we start to build a common language where the dog understands what is expected of him. There are no “corrections” in the early stages until we are absolutely sure the dog knows what to do; the only exception being if a dog is acting in a way that endangers the people around him, other dogs, or himself. 

Throughout this entire preliminary process, we use food. We rarely we use treats unless we’re doing an early exercise to call them off their food because there comes a point where, no matter what kind of reward you have, there is a distraction that has more value in the dog’s mind. You could have a perfect filet mignon, and it won’t matter if the dog cares more about chasing squirrels and has no impulse control. However, food is a great place to start the dog’s development, and one of the advantages it has for us is that it’s generally easy for the owner to replicate the exercises.

LIMITATIONS

As with any approach, positive reinforcement has its limitations. Once dogs understands they are in charge of their choices, there needs to be a way to tell them they have made the wrong choice. Positive reinforcement does not offer a solution. As mentioned above, it doesn’t matter what kind of reward you have if your dog values something else more. Telling dogs to look at you or to perform tricks in order to get treats are not solutions when they are so fixated on another dog that they ignore you altogether. There needs to be a way to tell them to stop what they are doing and get their attention back on you. The solution is correction through clear communication, but we’ll save that for another post. 

When you start with positive reinforcement and the dog becomes really good at responding to you, by the time you move on to addressing the original problems, about 80% of dogs will no longer have the issues. The ones that do are much easier to straighten out because they have the foundational skills and understand our communication.

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