Positive Reinforcement Training

In this post:

  1. What is positive reinforcement?
  2. Why choose positive reinforcement?
  3. How positive reinforcement works?
Please Note: Wag Enabled content (videos, posts, and articles) should not be used to diagnose behavioral issues. The content provided in this article is meant as an educational tool. You should always work closely with your pet’s veterinarian and a professional dog trainer and/or certified animal behaviorist.
Whether you have a new puppy, are adopting a dog, or are simply wondering if you can really teach an old dog new tricks, working out how you’re going to train your new best friend is a serious matter. So before you start anything, you should do your research. There have been quite a few developments in recent years regarding dogs’ mannerisms, natural instincts, as well as their psyche. As you research, you’re going to hear the term “positive reinforcement” quite frequently. Sounds great, right? It’s positive and it’s reinforcement. Two good things. But what does it really mean when it comes to training your dog? 

What is positive reinforcement?

Things you should know before training:

  • Dogs learn through association. That means the reward (or punishment – not recommended!) has to come immediately after a behavior in order for the dog to associate it correctly.
  • Only reward behaviors you want to encourage. Ignore, prevent, or redirect any behaviors you do not want your dog to repeat. Ignored behaviors will eventually go extinct.
  • Some unwanted behavior will increase before they go extinct. Think of a frustrated child throwing a tantrum when they don’t get their way.
  • Any attention can be considered a reward by your dog.
  • If your dog is not motivated by treats, use toys and affection, or some other reward that motivates your dog such as a walk, a car ride, etc. You know your dog best.

Why choose positive reinforcement?

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counterconditioning. They recommend that veterinarians should not send dogs to trainers who practice dominance and submission theories.

Veterinary researchers have found that aggressive dogs who are trained using aversive techniques do not improve, in fact, most of them get even more aggressive!

Another study Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement found that “These findings refute the suggestion that training with an E-collar is either more efficient or results in less disobedience, even in the hands of experienced trainers. In many ways, training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing the target behavior as well as general obedience training. This method of training also poses fewer risks to dog welfare and the quality of the human-dog relationship. Given these results, we suggest that there is no evidence to indicate that E-collar training is necessary, even for its most widely cited indication.”

How positive reinforcement works?

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The reinforcement theory was formulated by behaviorist B.F. Skinner and it is one of the oldest theories of motivation. Basically, our behavior is influenced by a string of consequences. Those consequences can be positive or negative.

All training methods fall into four basic categories and a lot of methods mix and match as they see fit:

  • Positive Reinforcement (+R): Adding good stuff to increase a behavior – giving treats for a job well done
  • Negative Punishment (-P): Delaying good stuff to decrease a behavior – removing attention when the dog jumps
  • Positive Punishment (+P): Adding bad stuff to decrease a behavior – shocking the dog for unwanted behavior
  • Negative Reinforcement (-R): Delaying bad stuff to increase a behavior – dog avoids behavior to avoid getting shocked

The biggest misconception about positive reinforcement is that you give treats to the dog during training. This seems simple and straightforward enough when teaching basic obedience such as commands. However, there is a lot more to using positive reinforcement training when it comes to altering dog’s (cat’s or any animal’s) behavior.

Increasing Desired Behavior

Positive reinforcement happens when you present a desirable reinforcer as a consequence of a behavior. This causes the behavior to increase. The rule of thumb is if you are providing reinforcement, even if it is not conscious, your dog will repeat the behavior. Reinforcement can be anything, attention, treats, or toys. It is whatever motivates your dog.

Basically, a dog or puppy does something, they are rewarded for it and then the dog or puppy repeats the behavior. Here are some examples of positive reinforcement:

  • Asking your dog to sit down or stay before mealtime will be reinforcing those behaviors so that he is a lot more likely to do them in other situations.
  • If you are touching the dog and saying a lot of “No, that is not a good dog” while your dog is misbehaving, this can actually reinforce that behavior even more and he or she can learn to misbehave to get attention from you.
  • Some behaviors are self-reinforcing. A dog is barking at the mail carrier through the window and the person leaves. The dog has now learned when I bark, the mail carrier leaves. His barking has been reinforced by the stimuli leaving. The best thing to do is to not allow the dog to bark at the window and to control the dog’s environment.

Decreasing Unwanted Behavior

Reinforcing wanted behavior is pretty straightforward – issues happen when you are trying to get a behavior to stop. You have to dip into the Negative Punishment quadrant. The name sounds a lot meaner than it is, negative means removal of something. Simply put, you are removing a desired event or reward as a consequence to a behavior. This causes that behavior to decrease. If you do not want your dog to repeat a behavior, do not give it any reinforcement. 

Even though the concept is simple, “stop reinforcing the bad behavior,” in practice it can get tricky for several reasons:

  • What is the reinforcer? Sometimes it is not plainly obvious what the reward that keeps the bad behavior going is. You will need to figure out what you are doing to reinforce the unwanted behavior in your dog. When most people are holding a puppy and the puppy starts to wiggle, cry, and act up, the person typically puts the dog down. What this teaches the puppy is when I don’t like something, I need to wiggle, cry, and act up to get it to stop (positive reinforcement and self-reinforcing behaviors).
  • Extinction burst: The behavior will get worse before it gets better. If you have a dog who is barking to get your attention, odds are he is going to bark harder and louder before he tries to stop. Don’t give in. Your perseverance will eventually win out!
  • Spontaneous recovery: During each training trial you will see an improvement but on the following trial (usually 1 or more days later) it will seem like your pet didn’t remember anything! Do not give up. Remember it is hard to stop something for which you have been getting rewarded previously.

Reinforcement Examples:

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Punishment Examples:

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Final Thoughts:

This is a lot of information to digest. Just remember, if you like what your dog is doing – reward him or her for that behavior. If you do not like what your dog is doing – remove any rewards. When all is said and done, the point of training is to strengthen your bond with your furry companion. It’s a chance for you to learn together and create a fun and joyful life together. Remember to have fun because that will help your dog be excited about training time.

Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions