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Dog Training Basics: Understanding Positive Reinforcement Training

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Biggest misconception about positive reinforcement is that you give treats to the dog and then ignore the bad behavior. Seems simple enough. However, there is a lot more to using positive reinforcement training.

The Basics of Positive Reinforcement are:

  • Dogs learn through association.
  • The reward has to come immediately after a behavior 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 it goes extinct.
  • Any attention can be considered a reward by your dog.
  • If your dog is not motivated by treats, use toys and affection.

Positive reinforcement happens when you present a desirable reinforcer as a consequence to 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 the dog or puppy repeats the behavior. Here are some examples of positive reinforcement:

  • Asking your dog to sit, down or stay before feeding him dinner will be reinforcing those behaviors so that he is a lot more likely to do them out in the world.
  • 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 so that you would “pet” them and talk to them.
  • Some behaviors are self-reinforcing. A dog is barking at the mailperson through the window and the person leaves. The dog has now learned when I bark, the mail person 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 – control the dog’s environment.
  • Letting your dog down when he or she is “acting up” is reinforcing that behavior. Now the dog will act up whenever anyone handles him so that he can be let go.

The second part of positive reinforcement training is stopping the unwanted behavior. Extinction training is the removal of 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 now give it any reinforcement. Even talking to your dog can be seen as receiving attention and the dog will repeat the behavior.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

How does positive reinforcement and extinction work together to stop unwanted behaviors? Follow these three steps:

Step 1: Decide what you want your dog to do instead of the undesired behavior. It has to be something incompatible. As an example your dog cannot jump at the door while sitting. It is impossible! Many behaviors are not bad; they are just not wanted. Jumping is just your dog trying to get closer to you and barking is your dog talking to you. They are not being bad; we just don’t want them to do those sometimes. Your dog needs to do something though. He can’t just do nothing!

Step 2: Prevent, ignore or manage the unwanted behavior. You need to make sure that your dog can’t do the unwanted behavior. If your dog is allowed to do something, even once, he will continue doing that. Whatever gets him what he is after, he will repeat the behavior over and over.

  • Behaviors you ignore are things like barking at you for dinner, mouthing on you, or begging at the table.
  • Behaviors you prevent are access to inappropriate chewing objects, barking at the door, and stealing food from the table.

I do want to caution against ignoring unwanted behavior. If your dog is acting up out of fear or anxiety, he actually needs help from you or a veterinarian,  professional trainer or behaviorist.

  • Excessive barking: your dog could be in pain and trying to let you know.
  • Chewing: your dog could have a tummy upset and is trying to eat things to help him comfort himself. Some chewing is a result of neurological disorders like Pica.
  • Jumping up: your dog could be afraid of a noise or not feeling good and is trying to get you to comfort him or her.
  • Biting you when being handled: perhaps it hurts him when you touch him there.

Step 3: Teach and reinforce the wanted behavior. This is the most important step in stopping any unwanted behavior; you have to reward the behavior you do want. If you want the dog to stop jumping up at people at the door, you will have to teach your dog what to do instead (sit, down, stay)  and then reward it when the dog does it. You have to be very consistent!! Cannot let him say hi to people unless he is doing what you asked.

Which behaviors are not allowed?

I cannot tell you what you should allow your dog or not. As long as a behavior isn’t dangerous, it’s up to you if you want the dog to do it or not. If you’re okay with your dog eating off your plate, that’s up to you. You can let them on your bed or not. They can bark at the door if you want them to. It is your dog and you can let them do what you want as long as it’s not dangerous.