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What Is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?

By Colleen Williams
February 4, 2019 • 3 min. read
Elizabeth Dog Training (2)

Historically, when we talk about dog training, the most common form was the “dominance theory.” This concept of “pack leader” or “alpha” was based on the principle that unpleasant consequences will coerce the dog into being less likely to display the same type of behavior. So, a punishment would essentially teach your dog how to behave. Examples of this include the alpha roll (pinning a dog on its back into submission) and other forms of punishment such as aversive stimulus like nose smacking. Thankfully, this dominance theory was debunked, as researchers discovered some very obvious drawbacks:

  • Increased anxiety and stress in dogs (and the chance of a fear response)
  • Increased defensive and aggressive behavior in animals; especially larger dog breeds
  • Decreased bond between dog and dog-parent

In this article, we will explore how dogs learn, the four widely recognized methods of training a dog, and why you should use positive reinforcement training.

How Do Dogs Learn?

Dogs learn through what’s called an adaptive process. It helps them adjust and adapt to their constantly changing world and environment. A change in environment typically results in a change in behavior; some of these behaviors are instinctive (e.g. suckling reflex in a puppy) and some are due to learned behavior (e.g. sitting for a treat).

The consequence of their behavior influences, increases or decreases, the probability that they’ll repeat the action that leads to a treat or praise. Scientifically, this is known as “operant condition”: a method where learning comes with reward or punishment. This occurs in many mammals, dogs included, where the animal makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence. A positive consequence has better results, rather than a fear-based one.

The Methods of Training: Positive and Negative

When we discuss dog training, it’s important to understand exactly what that means. Dog training at its core is the process of influencing a dog to display a certain behavior.

Your puppy or dog’s world view is games and fun; they see everything as a game. If the outcome or consequence of their behavior is unrewarding to them, the likelihood they will display this behavior again is reduced.  There are well-recognized methods of dog training which are based around reinforcing behavior positively:

  • Punishment as a training method is grounded in pack theory, which we know is debunked and potentially dangerous. It argues that if a consequence is unpleasant the dog’s probability of repeating their behavior is reduced.
  • Reinforcement dog training can be either positive or negative, and is based on providing an immediate consequence for a behavior. Positive reinforcement is a training method which uses a reward (e.g. food or praise) immediately after positive behavior.

Positive reinforcement is sometimes known as reward-based training, or force-free dog training and is widely recognized as the most effective and humane form of dog training. It improves the bond between parent and pet while reinforcing the desired behavior. The toolkit behind positive reinforcement can be either food (e.g. snacks or treats), praise (e.g. “Good Boy!”) or attention (e.g. games, affection and playing). Any one of these rewards reinforces a positive behavior to help modify an existing behavior pattern. Each reinforcement increases the probability the correct behavior will be demonstrated consistently.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t use force or coercion which ensures training can be fun and productive while strengthening the bond between you and your dog.

This article was provided by All Things Dogs —a digital dog publication looking to educate over 40,000,000 dog owners on how to care for their dogs. The author, John, is a dog lover and editor at All Things Dogs. He has studied animal welfare and behavior and is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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