Dog Obedience Training – Using Positve And Negative Reinforcers

Think of dog obedience training and, chances are, you’ll automatically think of dedicated obedience sessions where patient owners work with whistles and voice commands to train their attentive dogs. But what you probably won’t have considered is that your dog is learning all the time, whether you are involved or not.

Operant Conditioning

Dogs are naturally curious creatures and, quite simply, if your dog discovers (even by accident) that an action results in a pleasurable experience, this becomes imprinted on its mind and it will do it again.

This process is known amongst canine behaviourists as ‘operant conditioning’ or ‘operant learning’ – ie, the dog’s mind becomes conditioned to expect that a particular action performed in particular circumstances is rewarded. For example, the dog sits next to the dinner table and paws its owner’s leg and the owner gives it a tidbit. Action, reward. Or the dog whines and scratches at the door and the owner opens the door to let the dog in. Action, reward.

The problem for owners is that the nature of the reward can vary. Being tossed a tasty tidbit in response to begging seems quite an obvious reward but, perhaps, less obvious, for example, is the dog barking at the postman and the postman ‘retreating’. Or the dog that nips your hand and gets chastised.

For most dogs, any attention from us – whether positive or negative – is perceived as rewarding. It forms part of the dog obedience training. So, we may think that we have taught our dog that biting is unacceptable but what we have actually unwittingly taught him is that biting is guaranteed to get our attention. Result! And so he does it again.

Reinforce Positive Behaviour

Once you have an understanding of operant conditioning and of how your dog’s mind works, you can start to use it to your advantage in your dog training.

Dogs learn fastest when their actions are consistently rewarded. It stands to reason, then, that you should consistently reward your dog for good behaviour. The best way to do this is usually to offer a food treat, as most dogs are highly motivated by food. A quick game with a favourite toy can also work well. What is critical in all cases is that the reward is consistently given at the very instant the dog performs the required action, otherwise the dog will not associate the reward with the desired behaviour.

Negative Reinforcers

As we have seen, even negative attention from us is often perceived as rewarding by dogs. As far as possible, then, we should ignore unwanted attention-seeking behaviour. Sometimes this requires a bit of thought. For example, it is easier to understand the need to ignore a dog that keeps pawing at you for attention than it is to understand that we should not give a fearful dog lots of reassurance (thus giving the message that fear is the appropriate reaction).

And in some cases, turning a blind eye is not the answer. A dog that chases cats or ‘counter surfs’ in your kitchen, for example, will gain its reward from the thrill of the chase, or the discovery of your left-over supper. Provided you catch your dog in the act, the best approach here is to use distraction, or negative dog obedience training reinforcers, such as a spray of water or the loud shake of a tin can filled with stones. Used correctly and consistently, negative reinforcers will startle your dog and teach it that its action will result in a negative consequence.

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