I am glad that I know a thing or two about dogs for two reasons: I get to work with my favorite species almost daily, and that constant overflow of, often contradictory, information how to successfully live with dogs doesn’t confuse me.
Dog owners must be puzzled these days. Thanks to TV and social media everyone is a dog expert and has an opinion not shy to share with anybody who wants to hear it – or not. As a result, there are many misconceptions circulating, and one is that positive reinforcement doesn’t work, or only with mild dogs.
Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and it states that reinforcement creates behavior. In operant conditioning positive is not a judgment label, but simply means that a consequence is added after an action. Law means that it is not an opinion, but a scientifically studied, proven and documented fact. Positive reinforcement is my preferred method to train and treat dogs. Let me explain why.
An organism’s actions are driven by motivation: simplified, to access something that feels good or avoid something that feels bad. The dog is no exception. Newsflash! Dogs function like every other animal, including humans. They want and seek pleasure. It’s a fact, but one that clashes with humans’ infantile belief that a dog’s nature is to love unconditionally regardless how we treat him. Wishful thinking. Relationships between humans are conditional, and dogs behave in the same normal mammalian fashion.
Owners that refuse to facilitate pleasure have to inflict pain to get obedience. It is either-or, and in both cases it has to impress the dog or it won’t work. A lame “good dog” is just as ineffective in increasing a wanted behavior as a limp choke collar correction is in curbing an unwanted one. There is an analogy floating around for a long time that illustrates that brilliantly: The speeding ticket one.
People who exceed the posted speed limit are fined, but we all know that that punishment doesn’t deter folks to drive faster than permitted in the future. They might slow down for the moment, perhaps even for a little while, but the good behavior doesn’t last. Fines only teach people to be vigilantly on the lookout for cops to avoid getting caught again.
If fines don’t work, what might be a more effective solution? Well, we could manufacture cars that won’t drive faster than 100 clicks an hour - the dog equivalent is lifelong micromanaging. That is indeed the method some trainers choose: They advise to snap on a control tool, for example a shock collar, as soon as the dog is released out of his crate, and to take it off as the last thing before he’s put back in. I am not making this up.
How appealing is a preset slow car to you? A dog always controlled unless contained? Personally, I don’t want either, and thankfully, there is another way.
Let’s hypothesize what would happen if, instead of fining speeders, drivers who obey traffic laws received a reward. If cops were to randomly hand over 50-dollar bills, would lead foot ease up on the gas pedal? It depends if he needed the money and why he was driving too fast. A millionaire, or someone who is late for an important job interview, likely wouldn't, but I bet that overall rewarding good drivers instead of punishing bad ones would be more successful. In addition, that approach has two really great side effects: people would seek out law enforcement and not avoid it - that underlying queasy feeling when we see a cop car would disappear, and doing the speed limit would become a self-directed behavior, independent of surveillance. We’d try hard to comply not to miss out on the loot that might be lurking around the corner.
When we punish a dog, we are like the traffic cop. The dog might behave when we’re in the vicinity, for the moment, and only if the punishment we inflict overrides his drive to act. On the other hand, if we reinforce behaviors we like, we build a whole repertoire our dog will offer again, and again…
Are dogs really able to self-direct, to reliably act in ways that we desire but might be against their impulse? I say yes, but believe it is only achievable with positive reinforcement, and it must be applied correctly. There are two key aspects to remember: reinforcement happens after the behavior, and a reward is what matters to your dog - not what you think should be good enough.
The first one is straightforward. Don’t wave your cookie in the air and say come, but call your dog and when he comes the party begins. If the behavior doesn’t happen, neither will the reward. Self-explanatory, I hope, is that during the learning stages the dog must be managed wisely to prevent that he has opportunities to act in ways we don’t want but are externally, or intrinsically, reinforced. In other words, the dog should not be able to misbehave, because if it feels good to him, he’ll misbehave again.
The second point isn’t complicated either if you keep in mind that a reward is only a reinforcement if the behavior you are after happens again. Think back to the 50 bucks for doing the speed limit. That amount of money means nothing to a CEO who is regularly showered with huge perks, so it wouldn’t do much to keep him in line on the road. But it means a lot to someone like me who straddles the middle class, and even more to someone on a low income.
Similarly, the reward you offer your dog must mean something to him, or it will not reinforce the good behavior. When I see an obedient pooch patted on the head combined with verbal “good boy”, I wonder if his person schleps to the office each day for glass marbles and a bear hug from the boss. Even if they love their job and verbal approval, it is generally not enough. The big motivator is hard cash.
For a dog, the big motivator can be food, but isn’t always food. I could hardly impress Will with a milkbone shoved in her mouth when a hare pops out of the bushes in front of her. When she chooses to stay connected with me and ignore the bunny, she is working hard – and I hand out a bonus check. I reinforce with a chase game that might include me, or a special ball, or I might engage her in a seeking game and throw a handful of extra yummy treats for her to nose out.
You have to find your dog’s currency before you can put him on a payroll, and I’ll give you a tip: daily kibble isn’t it for most dogs. Don’t use kibble on the first day of the group obedience class, when distractions are high and your pooch has to work hard. Use chicken or garlic roast beef. People food. Good people food, not hot dogs.
Even though food is practical, think outside the box and be creative. The smarter the dog, the more creative the owner has to be. Be attuned. Attuned is the magic “a” word, not assertive. Understand what your dog wants at the moment, and whatever that is, is the reinforcement that will cause your dog to repeat the behavior that you are teaching. Examples of functional rewards are: riding in the car, a game of fetch or catch-me-if-you-can, distance to a stimulus the dog is fearful of, or the opposite: permission to greet and play.
An interesting walk is high on the wanna-do list for many dogs. Studies with rats showed that when given the choice to navigate through two mazes, with only one resulting in a food reward at the end, they alternated between both. Curiosity and avoiding boredom are powerful motivators for actions, and permission to explore a powerful reward for your dog after he’s paid attention to you, or walked nicely on the leash.
When you join your dog in investigative fun, perhaps even point out where you think interesting scents are, you are creating a deep bond. In the wintertime, we follow animal tracks we spot in the snow, and in the summer we pick berries together on hikes. When you do stuff like that, your dog will want to be with you, and is less and less inclined to seek stimulation away from you, and all training becomes much easier.
Whatever floats my dogs’ boat is what they’ll get when I want to reinforce a behavior I particularly love and want to see again. That makes me mighty powerful in their eyes. My dogs become addicted to me. The skeptics’ warning that reward-based training leads to a dog that behaves for rewards, not the owner, doesn’t hold true if you use positive reinforcement to establish that bond between you.
Yes, ultimately your involvement should matter most to your dog, but you only get that if he experiences that being with you feels better than anything else, and providing material things is a crucial part of it, especially with a new dog and before you meshed together. The dog first has to understand that you own all kinds of amazing assets, then you can put them under your control and make access contingent on behavior. If you orchestrate many opportunities for him to earn feel-good moments, he will try hard to please you. Please you to be released to what pleases him, and hopefully that includes you somehow as well. Trust me, that IS the fasted route to reliable obedience, a well-behaved dog, and a relationship with your canine friend envied by others.
Oh – one more thing: Because every dog wants something, obviously positive reinforcement does work with every dog.