Dog training: Positive reinforcement vs negative reinforcement

Posted by Cyril. July 28th 2014.

Dog training techniques have really moved on from the outdated methods based on dominance and punishment. Many used dominance as an explanation for behaviour in dogs such as resource guarding, which we now know to be down to either fear or a desire to control important things such as food or bedding.

Dominance reduction programmes involving disciplinary training techniques were designed to reduce the dominance of the dog, and increase the dominance of the owner, giving the owner more control and making the dog more obedient. These methods were “one size fits all” and didn’t take into account the differences between individual dogs, i.e. their breed, age, gender or life experiences. They often appeared to work because the dog became depressed and stopped behaving in the problematic way, or failed because the dog became even more fearful and therefore frustrated or aggressive.

Modern training uses proven methods of learning based on rewards for good behaviour, teaching alternatives or ignoring unwanted behaviour. New training techniques strive to improve the bond and trust between owner and dog, by providing predictability and consistency. Each training programme is tailored to the needs of an individual dog.

German shepard on a lead

The benefits of training your dog

Training your dog has many benefits and can be started at any age, young or old. Training should always be fun for both you and your dog; it’s an activity for the whole family to get involved in. Training can help your dog bond with family members, keep him and others safe, stimulate him, help him be more relaxed, increase his confidence in people and his environment…the list goes on!

How dogs learn

In simple terms, dogs repeat behaviour that gets them positive results or rewards. Modern training involves ensuring the dog is rewarded for the behaviour we wish to encourage, and reduces the possibilities for reward of any behaviour we wish to eliminate.

What is positive reinforcement?

A positive reinforcement is a reward that will encourage the dog to repeat certain behaviour. For example, if a dog is given a biscuit every time he sits down in response to a particular verbal command or cue, he is more likely to sit down in response to that cue again. Any behaviour can be positively reinforced, making it more likely the dog will repeat it.

A dog with a bone

What is a reward?

A reward is something that your dog values; rewards in training are ones that the owner can control. These rewards often come in the form of a tasty treat, something the dog would not normally have. However, a small proportion of dogs are not motivated by food. These dogs may prefer a game with a favourite squeaky toy, a scratch behind the ear, or even a verbal reward such as “good boy”. Rewards and motivation are determined by breed, gender, type, age and previous experience.

Dogs find many things rewarding; often these rewards are not things we have control over or would necessarily expect to be rewarding. It’s important to understand what motivates an individual dog and what it is that they find rewarding. Sometimes a trained canine behaviourist is needed to assess the dog’s behaviour.

Examples of rewarding behaviour:

  • When a dog pulls on his lead, he gets to where he wants to go faster, despite any pain or distress caused by the lead.
  • A dog that jumps up at the work surface and sometimes gets a piece of food is rewarded with that scrap of food, so is more likely to continue to jump up.
  • When a dog barks at the postman, and the postman walks away from the house after posting a letter, the dog is rewarded by “intruder” leaving. The dog perceives that this behaviour (barking) has driven the postman away, so is more likely to repeat the behaviour again the next day.
  • A dog that barks for attention and is shouted at by the owner, may carry on barking because he has been given attention, despite the attention being negative.

All these behaviours are more likely to be repeated because the dog has been rewarded in some way.

Why punishment won’t work

Punishment delivered at the right time may reduce the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. If a dog experiences physical or psychological pain, discomfort or fear every time he performs certain behaviour, he is less likely to repeat that behaviour. However, if he is punished too often he may start to become generally fearful, depressed and even aggressive.

Studies show that reward based training that encourages a dog to think and look for rewards from their trainer promotes inquisitive behaviour and dogs learn new things faster. Working dogs, assistance dogs, army dogs and police dogs are all trained using positive reinforcement with excellent results!

For further advice, please contact your local registered behaviour expert here.

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