Unpacking Positive Reinforcement

PUBLISHED ON May 16, 2017 by adria karlsson

When you get a new dog you’re instantly inundated with advice from pretty much everywhere… either you look for it online, get handed it by friends and family, or run into it unsolicited at the park or while walking down the street. Everyone has an opinion and everyone will have good reasons for what they believe- especially when it comes to training. How do you combat this influx of information and decide what’s right for your puppy or rescue? The first thing I’d advise is to find out a bit more about what all the catch phrases mean. For example, when someone tells you (as they often will) to find a “positive reinforcement trainer”- what does that actually mean?

When people talk about behavior and dog training they are typically talking about ways to change what’s going on- to either solve a problem or teach the dog something new. There are many ways to change behaviors, but they generally fall into just a few categories- you can reinforce a behavior (and make it increase in frequency); punish a behavior (and make it decrease in frequency), or ignore a behavior (and hope it goes away). Each of these has many pros and cons, but when someone says to find a “positive reinforcement trainer”, what they mean is someone who works primarily with increasing good behaviors by adding something (treats, toys, attention, praise) to that dog’s environment.

Positive reinforcement training typically works by encouraging your dog to perform certain behaviors- like sit, down, come, or walking nicely on leash- and then paying them with food. This is a pretty nice way for dogs to learn and for humans to teach them. Most people enjoy this kind of training and it works exceptionally well for teaching basic manners with very few potential downsides. While treats can be used improperly, if used correctly, food is a very quick, easily carried, and high value reinforcer for most dogs.

Positive reinforcement can also be used very effectively for tackling “bad” behaviors by reinforcing alternate behaviors in their stead. Instead of barking at other dogs, you can positively reinforce (or feed) the behavior of looking at those dogs calmly. Instead of jumping on visitors, reinforce lying calmly on a mat or at least keeping four feet on the floor.

Any trainer can call themselves a “positive reinforcement trainer” so as savvy dog owners, it’s worth knowing what that means and what “positive reinforcement” actually is. When you watch someone train, ask yourself- what are they encouraging? What are they “paying” the dog for doing? Is the dog trying out new behaviors to see what works? If instead what you see is a dog being corrected (through reprimands, leash tugs, or physical manipulation) then even if there are cookies involved, it’s not really positive reinforcement.

While there is no accrediting organization that actually checks up on trainers to see what they’re doing or what they claim to be, there are professional organizations that trainers and behavior consultants can choose to affiliate with. These organizations have Codes of Ethics or position statements. Do you know which organization your trainer affiliates with? Do you know what their code of ethics allows? These are good questions to ask! The organization I affiliate with most strongly is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and this is their Code of Ethics (https://iaabc.org/about/ethics) and the guiding Position Statement for training mythologies (https://iaabc.org/about/LIMA) – I hope any client coming to me can know clearly what I’m about before they put the care of their dog and their best bud’s future happiness in my hands. And you should feel just as confident about your trainer or behavior consultant.

Resources: IAABC Code of Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2016, from https://iaabc.org/about/ethics IAABC Position statement on LIMA. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2016, from https://iaabc.org/about/LIMA

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