Tag Archives: positive reinforcement

Rewards Must Be Rewarding

My training method of choice is Positive Reinforcement.  The technical definition of reinforcement (whether positive or negative) is something that happens AT THE SAME TIME the behavior occurs.  Mostly what we call “positive reinforcement training” involves giving the dog a reward AFTER the behavior happens.  Using a clicker or word like “Yes!” when the behavior occurs is the actual REINFORCER marking the behavior and bridging the unavoidable time gap before we can actually deliver the reward.  Karen Pryor pioneered this field which she developed working with dolphins;  hard to shove a fish in a dolphin’s mouth as it’s doing a back-flip out in the salt-water tank!  (Her book, DON’T SHOOT THE DOG, is a good read, even if you’re not an animal trainer!)

This method goes over very well with dogs.  Practical creatures that they are, they LOVE working when they know they’ll get something good for “guessing” right!   The “something good” can be food, praise, petting, toys — anything the dog likes and finds valuable!  It’s important, though to use something the DOG likes, not something the OWNER likes.

“Duh!” you say!  It does seem like this should be a no-brainer.  However, I’ve often seen owners — in all sincerity and meaning well — “reward” Rex with something he actively DIS-likes.  The usually happens when the owner thinks Rex will like something because he, the OWNER, does.

The most common example is patting a dog on the top of the head.  If we pay close attention to Rex’s body language, we’ll notice the closing eyes, the slight flinch, the flattened ears.  Some dogs actually duck and move aside and/or their tongue flicks showing their nervousness.  Some dogs freeze and squint; a few give the whale eye and lift a lip.  The reactions vary, but they all say this isn’t Rex’s favorite interaction.  Mostly Rex is tolerant and permits this because he senses it means a lot to us, but that doesn’t mean HE likes it.

Dogs instinctively dislike paws coming down on top of their head or back because in “Doglish” this sends a message of domination and/or challenge.  I believe that dogs try very hard to understand our version of body language.  Rex can learn we don’t mean anything by it when we pound on the top of his head, but I sincerely doubt he’ll ever ENJOY it.

I’ve seen owners “reward” a dog in some quite questionable ways.   Some offer praise in such a loud, brash tone that the dog actually crouches in fear.  Others insist the dog is begging for a belly-rub because she submissively rolls on her back.  One owner in a class would ask for a “Come!” then when the little fluffy dog DID, grab him on either side of his head, picking his front feet up off the ground and smothering his little face with kisses.  She insisted the dog LOVED that despite the dog’s flailing paws and frantic struggles to free himself.  I’m sure SHE loved doing it, but noticed the dog’s Recall skills became more and more erratic — mine would, too, if I thought that was what would happen whenever I got close!

Unfortunately, we humans have to work at empathy.  We have a great talent for fooling ourselves in these sorts of situations. We find it easy to imagine that another being would like (or SHOULD like) something because WE like it and enjoy it.  We find it more challenging to put ourselves in that other being’s shoes or paws and look at the situation  their viewpoint.

It all comes down to paying attention to Rex’s reactions.  A happy dog that is enjoying the interaction remains at your side and upright, has ears and tail up and tail loosely wagging.  He probably has a doggie “grin” — mouth open with tongue showing.  If Rex tries to get away, if he dips head/tail/whole body, turns away, closes his mouth with tongue flicking in and out, closes his eyes and/or freezes — he’s NOT happy.  Any of those reactions should send an owner looking for something more rewarding to use as a reward.

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Let the Dog Decide

Dogs are not machines.  Not even biological machines, though many scientists (without much in the way of scientific proof, mind you) claimed that was the case, right up until a couple of decades ago.  Current studies have proved that dogs have senses, emotions, memory and problem-solving abilities. They are living, feeling, thinking beings with wills of their own.  So, when we expect instant obedience in every and all situations we’re not going to get it! 

It might not even be defiance or deliberate disobedience!  My girl, Kita, gets so excited when treats (even boring stuff like bits of her kibble!) come out that she forgets to LISTEN!  She’ll start throwing behaviors at me, hoping to “hit the jackpot!”  I have to turn my back and ignore her for 10-15 seconds to put her in a frame of mind where she can pay attention to what I’m saying.  This is an excess of willingness to please, not a deficit.

Granted, it’s willingness to please because that will get her a reward, but dogs are practical creatures.  Just like humans, we work hardest for praise and tangible good things.   Dogs are even MORE practical than people in many ways.  They won’t waste much effort on a strategy that isn’t working.  (They WILL spend a lot on a strategy that worked in the past, but that’s another subject…)

As we have learned more about the inner life of dogs, so our training methods have changed.  Back in the days of dogs-as-machines, dog training was of the “yank and spank” variety — lots of yelling, and shoving into position, and quick punishment for every hesitation or mistake.  More modern methods use the carrot (or hot dog) rather than the stick:  positive reinforcement for getting it right!  Most dog trainers agree that this works at least as quickly and creates a much happier, better-bonding experience than punishment-based training.

I like to use positive reinforcement in all aspects of my life with a dog.  I teach the dog that I am the source of all good things, and they can earn them by doing what I ask.  Then, I let the dog decide.  She has a choice:  do what I ask and get the “reward” or decide NOT to and DON’T get the reward.  Rewards can be any resource the dog wants or needs:  food, treats, toys, going inside or outside, getting petted, any attention, lap-time, etc. 

The important thing to remember is that the dog has a CHOICE!  I don’t get upset if she chooses to NOT do what I ask.  I just withhold the resource.  Perhaps I’ll give the dog another chance a few minutes later.  Sometimes, the dog is out of luck for hours.  (Depending on if it’s something that can’t wait — like a trip outside to go potty — or something the dog can easily do without like petting.) 

Like I said, dogs are EXTREMELY practical creatures.  Once they learn that listening and doing some little thing like SITTING will earn them something good, they think that’s an easy choice!  There are times when she’ll get stubborn and not WANT to listen, but that’s OK!  It’s her choice and she can live with the consequences.  Let the dog decide!


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