Virtually every pet owner has heard of positive reinforcement, and at its root the concept is very simple; we reward behavior that we like. The actual dynamic of what occurs is a little more complex than simply tossing a treat. There is a reason we use positive reinforcement with our dogs, and a reason many trainers stay away from punishment. It is important to start with a complete understanding of what exactly you are doing when using positive reinforcement.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
When most people picture “positive reinforcement”, they see a puppy sitting, and getting a treat. This is right, but what is actually occurring is slightly more complex than simply giving a treat to a dog for a good job. Everything an animal does is shaped by the outcome of their behavior. Every – single – thing!
The Four Outcomes That Change Behavior
As discussed, animals are ruled by the outcomes of their behavior. The only outcome not mentioned here is a neutral one (i.e. not really good or bad), because it doesn’t change behavior. There are four different scenarios when looking at behavioral change.
• Positive Reinforcement (++)
Positive reinforcement is something added (+) to a dog’s environment that they like, making it more likely (+) they will repeat the behavior they were doing. Example: Giving the dog a treat for sitting.
• Positive Punishment (+-)
Positive punishment is something added (+) to a dog’s environment that they don’t like, making it less likely (-) they will repeat the behavior they were doing. Example: Smacking the dog on the nose for jumping.
• Negative Reinforcement (-+)
Negative reinforcement is something removed (-) from a dog’s environment that they disliked, making it more likely (+) they will repeat the behavior they were doing. Example: A dog wearing a choke chain stops choking when they stop pulling.
• Negative Punishment (–)
Negative punishment is something removed (-) from a dog’s environment that they liked, making it less likely (-) they will repeat the behavior they were doing. Example: A dog bites you while playing, so you stop playing for a few minutes.
Why Positive Reinforcement?
So why use positive reinforcement? Many dog trainers, or trainers of any animal for that matter (including people!), have implemented the use of positive reinforcement in their training plans. In doing so, animal trainers have seen an increase in behavioral consistency with their animals, increased confidence that can be applied to other situations, and stronger bonds with their animals.
Using positive reinforcement creates a history of positive associations between your animal and the behavior that is being worked on. For example: if you train your dog to sit by pushing their hind-end to the ground repeatedly, when you ask your dog to sit they are less likely to do so.
This is because throughout the “history” of sit, your dog has only experienced involuntary manipulation. However, if you train your dog to sit by luring them with food, and rewarding after the behavior has been completed, your dog’s “history” with sit is entirely memories of “good” things.
By creating a positive association with each action we want our dog to complete, when we ask for that action at another time they are more likely to want to do the behavior, because good things happened when we asked them in the past. Essentially, your dog will like to sit, and will be more likely to do so when asked.
By using food to shape our animal’s behavior, or to lure them into a specific position, we leave the control in the paws of our dog. By doing so, we create a scenario where our pups feel more confident, because they know they are in full control of their surroundings.
When animals are forced to do things that they don’t want to do, it can be detrimental to their psychological welfare. In fact, when an animal is unable to escape an aversive stimulus they can develop a phenomenon called learned helplessness. They eventually give up attempting to avoid the stimulus, and lose all confidence in their ability to escape adverse or uncomfortable situations.
Bonding With Your Pup
Needless to say, learned helplessness is not a trait one wants to see in any animal. We want to have the strongest bond possible with our pet, the best way to do that is by instilling confidence in them, and creating an association between our presence and food or other reinforcing events. Working with your dog in situations where they have full control of their surroundings, and voluntarily perform behaviors to receive a reward, is a wonderful way to create a bond with your pet. Your dog doesn’t only love you because you give them food, but it sure doesn’t hurt!
The Pitfalls of Punishment
While positive reinforcement is an effective learning tool, it is also important to understand that punishment is an ineffective one. The pitfalls of punishment can be long lasting and detrimental to the bond between you and your dog. Punishment can cause unwanted associations, health complications, aggressive behavior, and does not address the cause of the undesired behavior.
Because we cannot communicate clearly with our dogs, they can develop associations between punishment and unintended stimuli. Take for example, Billy and his dog Fido. Fido is jumping on guests, so Billy decides to whack him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Because we cannot explain to Fido exactly what he is being punished for, he could begin to associate newspapers, new people, the doorbell, or Billy, with bad things happening.
Now when the newspaper is brought inside in the morning Fido slinks away to the other room, anticipating punishment. This causes undue stress, which can weaken Fido’s immune system. Stress isn’t the only potential health complication that can arise from punishment. The use of choke or prong collars can damage to your dog’s neck or trachea, and putting pressure on your dog’s neck can increase their risk of eye problems, glaucoma, and pulmonary edema.
Punishment can also cause aggressive behavior, and in a number of species research has shown that the likelihood of aggression increases when punishment is used. An animal will naturally avoid punishment, and when unable to do so, can react with aggressive behavior (think fight-or-flight reactions). Another potentially dangerous situation is the use of punishment in reaction to aggressive behavior. Let’s go back to our example with Fido.
Fido has begun to growl when guests approach him, as he anticipates a punishment in association with people coming into the house. Billy now smacks Fido on the nose when he growls at guests, and Fido stops growling but doesn’t stop fearing strange people. Now when guests come over, he does not growl as they approach but he hates them. New people coming into the house has resulted in him getting smacked on the nose for months, and this new hated person reaches down to Fido’s head and… “SNAP” Fido bites at the guest’s wrist.
Because Billy punished Fido for growling, Fido stopped showing an important precursor to aggression. The growling Fido was doing had a purpose, warning people that Fido was uncomfortable and did not want to be approached. Removing that precursor did not remove the underlying aggression, resulting in a guest getting bitten.
Addressing the Cause of Behavior
As you can see from our example, punishment does not give Fido an alternative to the behavior, causing frustration, stress, and eventually, aggression. Even though Fido’s example is a worst-case scenario, it is not a far-fetched scene.
Punishment does not do anything to address the source of a dog’s behavior, and those feelings will not simply disappear. While attempting to punish a bad behavior out of your dog, you could potentially be creating multiple additional – and worse – behaviors. All this while destroying your relationship with your dog.
What to Do Instead of Punishing Your Dog – The LRS
While you should not be punishing your dog, it is important to understand how to react properly to an undesired behavior. If your dog is showing signs of aggression please seek the assistance of a trainer that can assess the behavior in person, and address it appropriately. If your dog is simply doing “annoying” behaviors like jumping, barking, or puppy biting, the LRS is a good place to start.
We know we don’t want to punish our dog, but we also don’t want to unintentionally reinforce them for a behavior that we don’t want them repeating. We want to react using an LRS – or Least Reinforcing Scenario.
Let’s rewind on Fido’s original problem, jumping on guests. If Billy had instructed his guests to react using an LRS (for this situation completely ignoring the jumping behavior) and had addressed the source of the behavior, while providing an alternative for Fido to do, Fido would have improved quickly without creating any unwanted associations or behaviors.
How to Implement Positive Reinforcement
To implement a training schedule using positive reinforcement, it is important to understand how to execute it properly. Your reinforcement should follow a correct behavior, immediately after it has been performed, preferably using a bridge (link to clicker article). This will create an association between whatever your dog was doing – and food, making them more likely to repeat the behavior again (with the hope of getting more food).
When training a new behavior, or working on a difficult behavior, food is typically the best choice of reinforcement. However, food is not your only option when it comes to reinforcing your dog! Anything a dog likes can be used to reinforce them, a scratch on the back, tossing a tennis ball, grabbing their favorite toy, or even simple high-pitched praise.
By using positive reinforcement properly, you can avoid the pitfalls of punishment, while also increasing the likelihood of your dog doing a behavior that you actually like! Positive reinforcement is a science-backed and proven method that can alter behavior on a long-term basis, there is simply no reason not to use it.