Positive reinforcement in dog training is a relatively new concept.
But what is it?
How does it work?
And can you really use it to train your dog?
Well, in this article, we’re going to explore the world of positive reinforcement and how to use it to not only develop new behaviours, but change behaviours you don’t like.
But for years we’ve been told that the only way to train a dog is through dominance and submission. That our dogs must be ‘bottom of the pack’, that they must submit to our dominance.
Cesar Milan has been the face of dog training with a TV show on National Geographic. He preaches this dominance theory to millions of dog owners every week.
As such, many dog trainers are still unaware of the power of positive reinforcement. And some are unwilling to move towards the method, insisting on preaching the dominance theory.
However, modern behavioral science debunks the myths surrounding dominance.
It has taught us that if we want relationships with our dogs built on understanding, trust, and love, then we must commit to providing gentle, consistent leadership to give them the best chance to succeed in what is for them, a strange, human world.
So, What is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training, Exactly?
Positive reinforcement goes by many names;
- Reward-based training
- Force-free training
- Pain-free training
- Science-based training etc.
Whatever you call it, this kind of training follows this principle;
By rewarding your dog with treats, play or toys when he responds to you or behaves in the way you want him to, then he is much more likely to repeat that action or behaviour.
Dogs are intelligent.
When they learn that good things happen if they do as you ask them, they will actually want to do as you ask.
Positive training involves having your dog work things out for himself in a fun, non-confrontational environment. When you reinforce desirable behaviors, he will choose to keep behaving that way because it makes him feel good. As such, he will be much less likely to behave in ways you don’t want.
The Flawed Science Behind the Dominance Theory and Why Positive Reinforcement is the Way Forward
Behavioral science is an ever-evolving field.
Our understanding of how dogs act, think, feel and problem solve, and how they process emotions evolve with it.
The old theory of dominance and submission was based on a study of captive wolves in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The study was conducted by a Swiss animal behaviorist called Rudolph Schenkel.
Schenkel concluded that wolves fight to gain and assert dominance over other pack members. The winner of these fights becomes the ‘Alpha’.
As a result, we were taught (and still are taught) that we must be the Alpha, the pack leader, or the dominant. That our dogs must be submissive to us.
But there are 2 glaring issues with this study and the resulting ‘knowledge’.
Firstly, this study of wolves was flawed because it was conducted;
a) With captive wolves,
b) From different packs, bloodlines, and lineages
In other words, they were completely unrelated and forced together in an artificial environment. As a result, the behavior being studied wasn’t reflective of what happened in real wolf packs in the wild.
Secondly, for a dog to see you as the Alpha, it must recognize you as a dog – and you’re not a dog!
In fact, a year-long study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that people who trained their dogs using aggressive methods were much more like to have aggressive dogs.
Why Modern Behavioral Science Supports Positive Reinforcement
Wolf packs in the wild are family units.
The ‘Alpha’ male and female are actually just the breeding pair. In exactly the same way that us humans have children and start a family.
There is no fighting to be the pack leader.
Watch this video of David Mech, he explains it clearly.
So our relationships with dogs aren’t driven by rank or where we stand in the pack, but by educating our dogs through reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced positively get repeated and grow stronger.
The Value of Rewards in Positive Training
Finding out what motivates your dog and using it as a high-value reward is critical to positive reinforcement training.
The timing and delivery of these rewards help your dog understand what you want from him while giving him the confidence to live successfully in your domestic environment. This process is a major part of building mutual understanding between you and your dog.
Food and treats are the most commonly used reward for positive reinforcement. Because of its ability to produce positive chemical reactions in the brain, dogs generally respond to food the most, but toys, praise, fuss, and play can all be used as high-value rewards.
Dog trainers that subscribe to the dominance theory would argue that rewarding your dog for displaying good behavior is nothing more than bribery. They argue that your dog should do as you ask because ‘you’re in charge’.
But here’s the thing…
When you’re training your dog, he’s working – this isn’t a natural thing for him to do. Rewarding him should be seen as payment for a job well done.
After all, would you go to work with no pay because your boss ‘is in charge’?
Didn’t think so!
Some might also argue that once the rewards stop coming, unwanted behaviors will creep in.
This is also an invalid argument.
Each time your dog is rewarded for a behavior, the neuropathways in his brain get stronger and stronger until the point that this learned behaviour becomes habit.
And as we all know, habits are hard to break – even the good ones!
Once your dog responds reliably you can reward him with his high-value reward less frequently and replace it with a reward of lower value.
So if your dog values food highly, a lower value reward might be praise.
This is called intermittent reinforcement.
He didn’t get his high-value reward this time but he might do next time.
In fact, intermittent reinforcement has been proven to make your dog respond and act more quickly. This is based on the same theory that explains why gambling is so addictive for humans.
‘You might have lost the last bet, but you could win a fortune next time’
Your dogs’ high-value reward becomes his jackpot, so he’ll work harder to get it.
Using Food As Positive Reinforcement
For many dogs, food is a high-value reward and it can be super effective when training your dog. So, it’s worth understanding what food does to the canine brain.
When food is presented to your dog, a reaction occurs in his brain and a chemical called dopamine is released. This release of dopamine causes feelings of pleasure and happiness. Because this chemical reaction feels good, he’ll behave desirably because he wants to keep feeling good things.
Because of the chemical reaction that food causes in the brain and the good feelings it creates, food is incompatible with fear or aggression – they cannot work together. This makes it the perfect tool for training anxious, fearful or aggressive dogs.
Dogs have circuits in their brains which trigger certain behaviors;
- Hunting and seeking behaviors and/or
- Fearful or aggressive behaviors
If your dog is presented with his favorite food before he reaches high levels of stress, he will engage his ‘seeker’ circuit. This essentially turns off the fearful or aggressive circuits.
The anticipation of getting that food creates this chemical reaction in the brain, releasing dopamine and all the good feelings that come with it.
By turning on the thinking part of your dog’s brain, we switch off the emotional part. This helps him focus on the positives of learning and allow him to stay calm in situations that would otherwise be very stressful.
Using Positive Reinforcement to Change a Dogs Behaviour
Positive reinforcement doesn’t just encourage good behaviour and prevent behavioural issues. You can use it to actively change your dog’s behaviour.
If your dog currently indulges in behaviours you don’t like, you can use positive reinforcement to change the way he feels and give him the tools he needs to behave in the way you want.
This changing of behaviour can happen quickly but in many cases, it can take time so it takes patience, understanding, commitment, repetition and consistency.
So exactly how do you change a dogs behaviour through positive training?
Find the WHY
The first step is to find out why your dog is behaving in the way he is.
To deal with the issues properly you need to know exactly where they stem from. Generally, if you know your dog well then finding the root cause of their behaviour should be fairly easily.
However, if you have brought a rescue dog into your life then this can be a little more difficult. So get as much information about his history as you can from the rescue centre.
If needed, hire a reputable dog behaviourist to help.
Understand the HOW
Once you understand why your dog is behaving the way he is, you can figure out how to turn it around.
Again, if you know your dog this should be pretty easy. Rescues can be a bit trickier if you’ve not had them long.
In many cases, our lack of understanding of how to communicate with our dogs is the reason they develop behavioural issues in the first place.
Clear effective two-way communication builds understanding and strengthens the bond between you and your canine friend.
Find the Right Motivation
If your dog is to learn anything, he must be motivated to do so.
Toys, treats, praise, fuss are all powerful forms of motivation but every dog is different. Find what motivates your dog the most and use it to your advantage.
Be Kind to Your Dog
Ever heard the term ‘You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind’?
Being cruel to a dog is being cruel. ‘Tough love’ only creates fear and anxiety. Don’t ever hit, shout at or yank on your dog. Be kind, understand his problems and be gentle in his rehabilitation.
We all want perfect dogs but expecting too much too quickly and rushing their training or rehab, you are setting your dog up to fail.
Take your time and give him the best chance of success.
Consistency is KEY
Everything you do, from training to everyday life must be consistent at all times.
If you let your dog on sofa sometimes but not others, he will get confused and won’t know what you expect of him.
Also, everyone in your dog’s life needs to be on the same page. Use the same commands, use the same methods and stick to the same set of rules.
Patience is the most important attribute a dog owner can have. Training a dog can sometimes take endless amounts of patience.
Some dogs respond to training well and can pick things up really quickly. Others can struggle to understand and may need more time.
Also, some behaviour issues are more significant than others and need more rehabilitation, so patience is incredibly important.
Positive Training isn’t Always ‘Purely Positive’
For the most part, positive reinforcement is the tool we use to develop good behavior.
Things like toys, rewards, treat rewards, fuss, play etc.
But in order to discourage some bad behavior, many dog trainers (even positive ones) use something called ‘Negative Punishment’.
Negative punishment isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. It involves removing something your dog values to reduce unwanted behaviour. In some situations we remove is the dog itself.
That being said, when we use negative punishment, we NEVER use pain, fear or intimidation.
A good example of Negative Punishment can be seen in these videos;
A Dominance Behaviour Issue
Using Negative Punishment to Fix it;
In essence, positive reinforcement is all about making the learning process a fun one.
If your dog sees that there are positive consequences for his behavior he will be much more likely to behave in that way because he feels good doing it. When you are the provider of those positive consequences and those good feelings you increase the chances of him listening and responding to you, whatever you ask of him.
When you are the provider of those positive consequences and good feelings, you increase the chances of him listening and responding to you, whatever you ask of him.
Through this two-way communication and mutual understanding, the bond and the love between you will become unbreakable.
And you can’t put a price on that!