POSITIVE TRAINING: Developing the Positive Reinforcer

Developing the Positive Reinforcer

Have you heard of the term ‘positive training’ and wondered what it means? Positive training has evolved over the last 25 years, through extensive behavioural research, to become the most powerful training tool ever seen.

Positive training has completely replaced the old school ‘yell and yank’ method – where dogs had commands yelled them, and if compliance was a split-second late, the choker chain was given a vicious yank. Thankfully, this cruel and ineffective style of training, which used punishment to achieve submissive and obedient dogs, has been fully discredited and discontinued.

Decades of animal psychology research has moved training styles forward, from negative punishment-based methods, to positive rewards-based training. We now use treats instead of choker chains. Our pets are rewarded for doing the right thing, rather than being yelled at, and yanked around, for doing the wrong thing.

Have you heard of a ‘positive reinforcer’? No, not many people have. Have you heard of a ‘negative reinforcer’? No? Yet, all dog owners use a negative reinforcer. The most common negative reinforcer is heard when a dog does something undesirable: it is told: “NO!” Other common negative reinforcers are “Arhh!” or “Hey!” Sometimes owners yell the dog’s name in anger: “FIDO!”, so the dog’s identifier also becomes a negative reinforcer.

A negative reinforcer is the short, sharp, gruff sound we make to stop our pet in its tracks, to prevent Fido from committing an undesirable action, or to protect him from danger. For example: chewing your favourite shoes, stealing the cat’s dinner, licking the baby’s face, jumping up at the bench when food is being prepared, or running out onto the road when traffic is coming… there are countless occasions when we say, or yell: “NO!” to Fido, or snap or growl his name in anger, fear or frustration. This is, effectively, a punishment.
A much more productive way to teach animals, however, is to use a rewards-based system: using a ‘positive reinforcer’ to signal the dog’s desirable behaviour – as soon as it happens – followed by treats to reward the dog. This makes Fido want to repeat the behaviour, in order to win more treats. Everyone is happy – everyone wins – with positive training.

So, if our negative reinforcer is “No!” what would be a good positive reinforcer? The obvious word is: “Yes!” This positive word is ideal, especially if said in an excited, happy and light-hearted, high-pitched tone. In other words, say “Yes!” as if you’re celebrating a good occasion, like a verbal ‘high-five’, as if saying “well done, Fido!”. That is exactly why we use a positive reinforcer: we are celebrating the animal getting something right!

This means that when the dog heads over towards the cat’s bowl, or the baby’s face, or your favourite shoes, or out the gate, but then stops to reconsider his actions, we pounce on this wonderful opportunity to reward his fantastic behaviour. We say “YES!” the split-second he turns away – to help him pin-point which action is being rewarded – and then we immediately follow up with a reward: such as a treat, game of tug, or special tummy rub.

With positive training, we are rewarding his desirable behaviour, rather than punishing bad behaviour. Animals (and children, by the way!) learn much more quickly through reinforcement of desirable behaviour, than through the punishment of undesirable behaviour. Let’s look at that scenario again from another angle. If we yell “NO!” as Fido heads towards the bowl/baby/shoes/gate, we are actually punishing his intent, rather than his actions, and this is not a good thing. We can either wait to see what he does, and then ‘punish’ him with a “NO!”, or we can intervene. If we allow him to continue with his action, only then should we say ‘no’ – once he is actually performing the undesirable behaviour. What is far better, however, is to intervene and help him make the right decision – not with a punisher, but by simply calling him away, using a very neutral tone, and distracting him from his intent to steal/lick/chew/escape. We simply prevent the undesirable behaviour from occurring through a term I call ‘distractive intervention’. Once he turns away without having committed any crime, we pounce on this positive situation with a “Yes!”, followed by rewards and really wonderful interaction. Distractive intervention, therefore, is an excellent positive training tool!

Positive training allows for a much more pleasant and productive relationship with your dog: not only will he be more obedient, but everyone stays positive and happy!

IMPORTANT: remember that every minute your dog is awake presents you with a positive training opportunity. Have treats with you at all times and whenever your dog performs any action which pleases you – whether requested or not – immediately pin-point it with the “Yes!” word, then reward lavishly. Positive rewards-based training provides constant, effective and continuous training opportunities, to create happy, confident and obedient four-legged friends for life!

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