Dog Training & Behavior: Science Behind Positive Training

By Carly O’Malley

Senior Pet Care Specialist and Social Media Coordinator – The Good Dog Spot

Ph.D. Student – Animal Behavior and Welfare Group – Michigan State University

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There are a lot of theories out there about dog training and it can be difficult to sort through them all to find the best method of training for your pets. Here at TGDS, we strongly believe in positive-reinforcement-based training methods.

The theory behind positive training is that you reward your dog for the good behaviors they are doing and ignore the bad ones. Positive training is part of the learning method of operant conditioning, which associates rewards or punishments with certain behaviors. Operant conditioning was proposed and studied by a psychologist named B.F. Skinner as an alternative to classical conditioning, which also teaches through association, but ignores individuality. Both theories are used in modern dog training, but operant conditioning, especially positive reinforcement, tends to provide the animal a choice rather than forcing the animal. Now this does not mean the animal runs rampant while trainers chase after them with treats waiting for them to behave. Typically, trainers start with classical conditioning, laying down a foundation that associates a marker (like a clicker) with behaviors such as sit, down and stay. The more the dog learns that it gets rewarded for those behaviors, the more they offer them. They stop offering behaviors they don’t get rewarded for, like barking for attention and jumping.

The language behind positive-reinforcement training can be confusing. There are four important parts of operant conditioning to define: positive means to add something to the environment; negative means to take something away; reinforcement means to increase the frequency of a behavior; punishment means to decrease the frequency of a behavior.

Now that you understand the meaning behind the language, we will break down how these things play into training.

Positive reinforcement is adding something to the environment to increase the frequency of a behavior. For example, giving a yummy treat every time your dog sits.
Negative reinforcement is removing something to increase the frequency of a behavior. For example, some trainers train recall by turning on a shock collar and continuing to shock the dog until it returns to the trainer. The dog is rewarded by the shock being turned off.
Positive punishment is adding something to the environment to decrease the frequency of a behavior. This is a common method for some dog trainers. For example, yanking on a prong or choke collar when your dog is pulling on the leash.
Negative punishment is removing something to decrease the frequency of a behavior. For example, sending your child to bed without dinner for talking back to you.

That was complicated, we know. The language can be hard to get a grasp on, but the most important thing you need to know about positive training that it is great for strengthening the bond with your pet, increasing confidence and getting a well-behaved pet.

Keep an eye out for this month’s blog article and training contest to learn more about positive training!

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