Positive reinforcement is a term that can refer to a type of dog-training used to condition a dog’s behaviour. The technique is largely based upon a psychological learning process named operant conditioning in which an individual’s actions are modified through associating certain behaviour with a stimulus. In the context of dog psychology, ‘reinforcement’ means introducing a stimulus (this can be a toy, special food, affection or any other kind of treat) or event as soon as a desired behaviour is displayed by the dog in order to increase the chance of that behaviour occurring again.
The psychology behind positive reinforcement is based on the theory that dogs like to please their owners and also receive rewards. If a dog displays certain behaviour and is rewarded, then they will be more likely to display that behaviour again. The reward does not have to be a dog’s favourite toy or treat and receiving extra praise, attention or affection can often work as a stimulus as it is showing the dog that they are making their owner happy. Positive reinforcement is particular to each individual dog (what one dog may find rewarding, another may not) and so the key to using this technique successfully depends upon finding a stimulus that a dog finds rewarding.
The initial reward that a dog receives for displaying a desired behaviour (such as food) is known as the primary reinforcer. This is what the dog will strive for when he/she is undergoing this type of training. To help establish the good behaviour of the dog, the owner will also use a secondary conditioner in conjunction with the primary conditioner; this is usually an auditory sign such as a ‘clicker’ or certain word of praise. As the training progresses the dog will learn to associate the secondary conditioner with the primary conditioner. According to the supporters of this method, a dog does not learn to behave well through negative reinforcement. The theory suggests that a dog who is told-off or forced to behave a certain way will only stop behaving badly whilst it is being punished and so the good behaviour is not learnt or ingrained, merely acted; often out of fear or submission.
There are a few questions to be raised when talking about the psychology of positive reinforcement. Many trainers that are opposed to this method believe that a dog will only associate the good behaviour with the reward when the secondary conditioner is coming from the owner or person that has trained them. This is interesting in that it explores whether a dog trained in this way has actually learned how to behave well or whether they are simply responding to their owner i.e. if a stranger was to use the same secondary and primary conditioner, would the conditioned dog respond in the same way?
Of all the dog-training techniques, positive reinforcement relies on communication the most. If a dog owner is to train their pet in this style then they must be able to understand what their dog is learning and how he/she is learning it whilst also getting across what it is they want their dog to do. Again, there is some conflict between this theory and the negative reinforcement theory (which I will be focussing on in the next part of this topic) as negative reinforcement tends to revolve around the one –way communication of the owner asserting his or herself over the dog.
Dogs can be keen learners but as with all training-techniques, the process needs to be repeated gradually to ensure that the dog develops an understanding of the difference between wrong and right. If a dog owner can understand their dog and make the training process fun, then positive reinforcement can certainly work.