Some time ago, there was a change in the way dogs are trained. Instead of using punishment when dogs did the wrong thing, people started to reward them for doing the right thing – and ignore what they did wrong, or distract them from it. But in everyday life, you hear people talk about dominance in dogs, even though we know that dominance – as the term is usually used – is a myth. And when you watch TV, some trainers still use punishment. You can watch two different dog programmes and see completely different approaches to the same problem, whether it’s pulling on a leash, begging at table, or growling at skateboards and bicycles. It’s no wonder dog owners get confused.
So, what do we mean by positive reinforcement? Put simply, it’s rewarding the dog for doing what you ask. Some people assume this means feeding the dog treats, but in fact the reward can be anything – so long as the dog finds it rewarding. So the reward might be food, affection, praise, or a quick game of tug. If you’ve ever watched agility championships, you’ll have noticed the dogs are often rewarded at the end with a tug toy. (But see the importance of food in dog training).
This series is about training pet dogs. Although we can learn a lot from the way dogs are trained to do specialist jobs – like search-and-rescue, assistance dogs, drug detection, and police and military dogs – they are trained by specialists. It’s a different situation than a dog that is being kept as a companion, and I want to focus on things that are achievable for a normal dog owner.
So, is it better to use only positive reinforcement? Next week, I’m going to look at one of the first studies to investigate how ordinary people train their dogs, and the factors that influence their success.
Do you have any questions about the use of positive reinforcement? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to include answers somewhere in the series.