If given the opportunity to build excitement and focus in your dog, improve their behavior, exercise their brain, body, and senses, and build your relationship with them, wouldn’t you do it? Positive reinforcement training, or simply reinforcement training, offers all of these benefits and many more. Yet, not everyone is sold. ‘I’m not going to bribe my dog into listening to me’ is a sentiment many dog trainers hear when trying to introduce reinforcement training to new clients dealing with behavioral problems. Except, reinforcement training doesn’t work through bribery. Instead, it’s founded on solid scientific principles proven throughout time and on different species. For instance, you can’t put a shock collar or a choke chain on a killer whale, so marine mammal trainers had to figure out other ways to gain compliance from these animals that were not only many times their size but also top predators in the food chain.
“Good” and “Bad” Behaviors
With all animals - whales, dogs, and even people - behavior is always happening or being offered. We respond, react, and engage with our environment all the time. We are always doing something, and so are our dogs. These actions can be in the form of desirable or “good” behavior, undesirable or “bad” behavior, or neither, meaning “neutral” behavior. Even when a dog is lying down chewing a bone, they’re not simply “doing nothing.” They’re also not digging through the garbage, scanning the counters for food, pottying in the house, barking out the window, bolting through a door, chasing the cat, fighting with a housemate, jumping up on guests, or other unpleasant behaviors.
In reinforcement training, the concept is simple: the “good” behaviors we want to see repeated get reinforced so that they happen more often. “Bad” or undesirable behaviors are replaced with more appropriate or desirable behaviors. Instead of jumping up on people when greeted, a dog should sit politely for petting. Instead of bolting through the door, the dog should look back at their owner and wait for the command to go out, and so on. It can all be done without the use or need for punishment, which can erode the bond between dog and owner and diminish trust.
How Does Reinforcement Training Change Behavior?
Simply put, a reinforcer is anything that increases the probability of a behavior happening again. B.F. Skinner, one of the scientists who popularized the idea of reinforcement training and is considered to be the father of Operant Conditioning, found that behaviors that were reinforced or rewarded were likely to be repeated and, in many cases, increased in frequency, intensity, and duration. This goes for “good” behavior and “bad” behavior. Bad or undesirable behavioral habits form because somewhere in the environment, that bad behavior was reinforced or rewarded, whether intentionally or not. It was “working” for the dog. If a dog pulls on the leash during walks, it’s because every step they take forward reinforces the pulling behavior. However, if you remove the reinforcer or the reward (the ability to move forward), the pulling behavior will eventually fade or stop. This leaves us with an opportunity to reinforce a desirable behavior we want to see in the place of the undesirable behavior, such as walking calmly at our side instead of pulling ahead.
Positive reinforcement works for the vast majority of dogs, and we can increase behaviors with the use of reinforcements and rewards because dogs, like humans, have what is known as a Win-Stay-Lose-Shift cognitive strategy. This means that if they find that a behavior “wins” them something desirable or necessary (such as food), they will stay with that behavior, and it will be repeated. Alternatively, suppose the behavior causes them to “lose” at earning something they desire or doesn’t serve them. In that case, they will shift their strategy and, in many cases, their behavior to something that will once again win them what they desire. Researchers at the Department of Psychology at Boston College confirmed that dogs demonstrate this Win-Stay-Lose-Shift strategy and that it’s genetically ingrained into them and is evident even in puppyhood. This means that even young puppies can be trained to learn simple training commands using positive reinforcement.
The Positives in Positive Reinforcement
Still not convinced that positive reinforcement training is the best training method for most dogs? As stated, it’s an optimal training method for every life stage since it can be used on the vast majority of dogs, including young puppies and even senior pets. In addition, because it’s based on rewards and positive associations, it can also be used regardless of a dog’s temperament because it is non-confrontational and does not provoke aggression or agitation like some harsh punishment-based training “methods” do. It builds positive associations between the dog and training and the bond between the dog and the owner. It builds confidence in shy, timid, and fearful dogs and helps to calm aggressive dogs because it puts them in control of their environment and outcome. It doesn’t require expensive equipment, and best of all, it’s fun! It’s also scientifically proven and has been studied for decades, with results reproduced not only in research facilities, universities, and laboratories across the world but also in puppy training classes, agility fields, service dog training programs, and aggressive dog rehabilitation programs worldwide.
Resources For You!
Ready to get started in your dog's positive reward training journey? CKC has many articles and blog posts on training using positive reinforcement. If you want to know how to apply positive reinforcement training in a step-by-step fashion, CKC offers all CKC-registered dogs and puppies free training video classes that demonstrate simple and fun techniques.
In addition, CKC offers many free positive-reinforcement-based training resources on our blog, which can be accessed HERE. Be sure to check out our other articles on positive reinforcement training and how to apply them by checking out these links:
- Puppy Training Video Series (Trailer)
- 5 Essential Commands You Should Teach Your Dog
- Quick Fix for Barking
“Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training” by Karen Pryor
“Positive Reinforcement: Training Dogs in the Real World” by Brenda Aloff
Molly Byrne, Emily E. Bray, Evan L. MacLean, Angie M. Johnston (2020). Evidence for Win-Stay-Lose-Shift in Puppies and Adult Dogs. https://cognitivesciencesociety.org/cogsci20/papers/0717/0717.pdf
Coren, Stanley, Psychology Today, Canine Corner, “Why Does a Reward During Training Change a Dog's Behavior? A simple prewired cognitive strategy makes reward training of dogs possible.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/202008/why-does-reward-during-training-change-dogs-behavior