Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training

This week is the start of a series about the science of positive reinforcement in dog training.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Whether you already use positive reinforcement, or you’re yet to be sold on the idea, this series is for you. I’m going to look at studies that investigate different methods of training, and consider what they mean for the average dog owner.

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 dogs 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.

Series on positive reinforcement dog training, for dogs like this chocolate Lab

So, what do we mean by positive reinforcement? Put simply, it’s rewarding the dog for doing what you ask so that they are more likely to do it again.  

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 for some science on what dogs like best as a reward).

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 scientific studies to investigate how ordinary people train their dogs, and the factors that influence their success.

Read the Series on Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

This is part one in the series on the science of using positive reinforcement in dog training. Here are the other parts:

Positive reinforcement and dog training II. Training with rewards is linked to more obedient dogs with fewer problem behaviours, according to owners.

Positive reinforcement and dog training III. A study finds people who only use positive reinforcement report their dogs are less attention-seeking, aggressive or fearful.

Positive reinforcement and dog training IV: Little dogs vs big dogs. We investigate whether small dogs are treated differently than large dogs.

Part V of positive reinforcement and dog training: Dogs with behaviour problems. For dogs with problem behaviours, the use of aversive techniques can lead to an aggressive response.

Part VI of positive reinforcement and dog training: Learning new behaviours. A past history of reward-based training leads to more success in future dog training sessions.

Positive reinforcement and dog training VII: Summary and Conclusions. The best way to train a dog is by using rewards, but many owners continue to use aversive techniques.

You might also like: New literature review recommends reward-based training.

If you want even more information about the science of dog training, check out my list of dog training research resources, which lists scientific articles (and places where you can read about them for free).

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.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Photo: Shutterstock.

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