Part VI of Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training: Learning New Behaviours

A past history of rewards-based training leads to more success in future training sessions.

A cute puppy chews on a ball, as we think about the science of dog training
Photo: matabum/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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So far in the series on positive reinforcement in dog training, we have found an association between the use of punishment in dog training and unwanted behavioural issues such as aggression. The use of positive methods only is also more effective than using a combination of rewards and punishment, or punishment alone.

However, all of the studies have relied on owner’s reports of their own dog’s behaviour. What if the behaviour is assessed by someone else? Does the training technique used in the past affect a dog’s performance at learning something new? That’s exactly what Nicola Rooney and Sarah Cowan set out to investigate.

In this study, 53 dog owners were asked how they had trained their dog in the same seven everyday situations that were used in the study by Hiby, discussed earlier in the series.

They were filmed interacting with their dog at home in several scenarios that included ignoring the dog, an obedience test of ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘lie down’, and a play session.

Finally, the owner was given a ball and a bag of treats that they could use or not as they wished, and given five minutes to try and train their dog to touch one of two spoons on command. This was a novel task the dogs would not have learnt before, and so it evaluated their ability to perform something new. 

The video and questionnaire data was then analyzed by the researchers. Training techniques were classified as reward-based, punishment-based, or miscellaneous. All of the participants in this study used both rewards and punishment; 38% of them used rewards more often, and 49% used punishment more often.

The dogs of owners who used more punishment were less playful with their owner and less interactive with the experimenter. The dogs whose owners had previously used more rewards in training were better at learning the novel task. When researchers looked at the novel training session only, dogs performed better if their owners were patient and if they used more rewards.

The authors say that “a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” 

One of the important findings of this study is that the earlier training affected the dog’s performance on the new training task, as did the owner’s behaviour during the task itself. Thus, although the result is a correlation and does not prove causation, there has been a time-lapse between earlier training and the new task. Also, while the study of small dogs vs large dogs showed that consistency plays a role, this study shows that another aspect of owner behaviour is also important: Patience.

How do you like to train your dogs on a new task?

Come back next week for the conclusion to the series on positive reinforcement and dog training.

If you'd like to learn more about what canine science tells us about how to have a better relationship with your dog, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. NYT-bestselling author Prof. Gregory Berns says of Wag, "Using the latest canine science, Zazie Todd gives us a clear and compassionate guide to bringing out the best in your dog." 

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. 

Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3-4), 169-177. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

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