This is the short answer: because positive reinforcement is a humane, science-based method of training animals that focuses on rewarding desirable behaviours. It is safe for everyone to use and it strengthens the bond between you and your animal.
- It is humane and safe because it does not involve punishment (be it verbal or physical). Animals have different levels of sensitivity and even though many dogs tolerate punishment, for others it may be a trigger to bark, bite or hide, ultimately escalating the situation instead of solving the problem. Therefore, using punishment is not safe. Secondly, punishment damages the bond between you and your animal, teaching the animal that they cannot trust you or even should fear you. (I also think that punishment is plain wrong and useless but it’s a matter for a different post).
- It is science-based because it mostly uses the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning that have been well documented over the last hundred years. There has also been research into positive reinforcement itself that showed that animals trained by this method learned faster and retained the new skills much longer than classically trained animals.
- It is a method because once you learn the principles you can yourself train your animal. Of course what you train them to do and how long it will take depends on many factors (the animal’s age, experiences and predispositions, your skills, the amount of time you’re willing to invest…) but you definitely do not need to be a ‘dog whisperer’ to use it to your advantage.
- is not a quick fix. Like all successful training methods positive reinforcement requires us to think about our goals, plan ahead and manage the animal’s environment so that we can set them up for success. Most problems consist of multiple “bad behaviours” and each of them has to be fixed individually. (For example problematic greeting behaviour may involve barking, lunging and uncontrolled running. All separate issues for training.).
- does not mean that you have to use treats (or any other kind of reward) all the time. Yes, initially you treat each time. But once a behaviour is stable (reliable) you can gradually wean the animal off treats and only reward them from time to time. Unless it’s something that is really hard for them. Speaking of which, why are we so opposed to rewarding our dogs? No one ever asks when they can stop punishing their dogs… Without delving deep I’d like to make an argument for treating our dogs lavishly: most of the things we ask them to do are contrary to their instincts and obeying all our requests is hard work. In my opinion hard work deserves pay. Full stop.
- does not equal permissiveness. The difference between positive reinforcement based training and “traditional” training is how we react to the unwanted behaviours. Where a
ctraditional trainer might opt for correction/punishment, the positive trainer opts for telling the dog what they want (instead of what they do not want)because really, just expecting them to “know better” is plain unfair. Example: your dog wanders off the sidewalk. Instead of yelling/jerking the leash, one way would be to teach your dog the cue “sidewalk” and reward them for getting back onto the sidewalk.
- Not everything can (or must) be trained.
…and how I learned the hard way
It’s really hard to resist the urge to punish the dog verbally, especially when they are doing something that is not only wrong but also potentially dangerous. Patricia McConnell suggested in one of her books that it has more to do with letting off steam and appeasing our own anger than with anything even vaguely resembling training. But still, it’s just really hard.
For example: despite her training my dog cheerfully walked into the street. My reaction? I shouted at her. She stopped. I did some more shouting. She lied down.
She lied down in the middle of the zebra.
Why? Firstly, despite all the sounds I was making I did not give her any clear instructions. I think she figured out I was unhappy but that’s not a cue or even a clue. Secondly, I must have looked pretty scary to her, no wonder she decided not to approach me.
Luckily we lived in a very quiet neighbourhood with few cars so I had the seconds necessary to put my thinking cap back on, change my body language and tone and make her come to me. I hope I rewarded her plenty for coming back. The whole scene lasted probably less than half a minute but it felt like ages to me…
I’m sure that everyone who has a dog (or a child for that matter) has been in a similar situation. Frustration management is a problem for all of us, humans and dogs alike. Situations like this clearly show that shouting does not solve any problems. The biggest lesson I took from this experience is, well, not shouting at her. But there are other lessons.
First of all, did this have to happen? No. This situation was 100% my fault. She should not have been off the leash in that situation at all because a) I was talking on the phone, and b) we have only started practicing staying on the pavement.
Roads and pavements are just one of these things, just like walking shoulder to shoulder or facing each other during greetings, that are so very natural to us that we tend to make the assumption that dogs should also know what they mean. But my dog has most probably spent her whole life scavenging the countryside, how should she know? The key to being a successful companion is managing their environment and setting them up for success.
In our case that means that I do not talk on the phone when she’s off the leash and – after months of practice – I still let her walk the streets freely only when I can totally focus on her. And I try my best to not lash out because if she ‘misbehaves’ it is because I haven’t taught her a better behaviour.
There is a myriad of things you can teach your dog and a myriad of ways to do it. What often gets lost in the equation is: why do we want to train our dogs? and what do they need to know?
Once you start thinking about it it’s pretty obvious that what they need to know and what we want them to know are not the same. What do we want for them?
For me it looks like this:
I want my dog to be safe.
I want my dog to be happy.
To be safe she needs to be able to:
- stop when I ask her,
- come back when called,
- not rush into new situations (=no running out of the door, jumping out of the car), and
- comply with medical exams.
To be happy she needs to be able to do things that she likes. For that she needs me to learn about her, observe and listen so that I can provide the opportunity to her.
Does any of that require fancy trick or obedience training?
Can dogs enjoy tricks & obedience?
Probably, maybe – people are actually really divided on that one.
This blog aims to explore ways to teach dogs to be safe in a non-violent way and to investigate all the ways we can make them happy and their best possible selves. Maybe we can become our better selves in the process as well.