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Positive Reinforcement Training, is it a method?

Updated: May 5, 2020

'Do you use Positive Reinforcement Training'? A question I have been asked many times.

An innocent enough question and completely understandable when so many of us label ourselves Positive Reinforcement trainers.

Behind this question is a misunderstanding of Positive Reinforcement - a misunderstanding of what it is and what it isn't.

The terms Positive and Negative Reinforcement, Positive and Negative Punishment come from a method of learning called Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning attaches a reinforcing or punishing consequence to a behaviour to make it more or less likely to happen again.

A simple way to think about this is to say that a consequence encourages us to move towards a behaviour (do it again) or move away from a behaviour (avoid doing it again).

You may also hear dog trainers talk about 'the quadrants'. The quadrants often appear like this

Positive Reinforcement is:

  • a natural force experienced by the individual

  • only evidenced after the event

  • a natural force that is happening all the time, with or without our awareness

This also applies to the other 3 concepts - Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment and Negative Reinforcement.

We assess whether reinforcement has happened by evidencing what our learner does next. If the behaviour is increased or maintained then we can conclude that reinforcement has happened. If the behaviour decreases or stops completely then we can conclude that punishment has happened. Note that I have removed the Negative and Positive, how the learner experienced the consequence is the part of the process they own completely.

Positive Reinforcement isn't:

  • A reward

A reward is the consequence we choose to present, in the hope that it will be experienced as positive. Remember we have no control over how the consequence is experienced no matter how hard we try to give the best reward.

As an example - it is your birthday and I want to give you a gift. I take some time to think about what you might like. I shop carefully and make a choice, wrap the gift and hand it to you anticipating your pleasure. The moment the gift leaves my hand and enters yours, I lose control of the experience. You may feel pleasure but there is no guarantee. My intentions were positive, I desired for you to feel happiness but your experience may be negative, only you can tell.

It isn't unusual for novice dog trainers to mix up the terms reward and reinforcer, in her book Clicker Revolution, Kay Laurence gives a useful clarification when she writes:

"A reward is something that is experienced by the person who delivers it.
A reinforcer is reinforcing for the recipient, the feelings of the deliverer are not important."

The thoughtful dog trainers who bring their dogs to classes have the very best of intentions. They take time to prepare rewards for their dogs, make the best choices they can. Food is delivered with care, with respect. They really want their dog to enjoy their evening of training. Even with all this thought and care, only the dog can decide if the experience was positively reinforcing for them.

As dogs cannot speak we need to evidence affect in other ways for example:

  1. we can use our knowledge of body language to assess how our dog feels after the delivery of the consequence.

  2. we describe our dog as enthusiastic, curious, engaged, focused, relaxed and ready to learn during training?

  3. our dog returns promptly for an opportunity to repeat the behaviour?

  • A method

It isn't possible to use Positive Reinforcement as a method of training, picking it up or putting it down as we choose. The experience of reinforcement or punishment for our learners, and whether it is positive or negative, is out of our control.

Delivering a treat, toy or kind words is a method which we hope our dog will experience as a positive consequence but labelling it positive reinforcement is inaccurate and learning how to use the correct terms is part of the skill of becoming an effective dog trainer.

Reinforcement is experienced by the dog

What are we trying to say?

One of the challenges of being a dog trainer today is knowing how to present yourself to potential clients. Are we positive, progressive, thoughtful, a combination of all 3 perhaps? One of the challenges of being an owner is picking your dog trainer. It can feel daunting trying to assess and analyse your way to the best trainer for your dog.

I think that what dog trainers are trying to say is that we will do everything we possibly can to keep the experience of learning with us, whether dogs or people, in the quadrant labelled Positive Reinforcement.

I think dog owners are saying that they are looking for guidance on how to deal with their dog's behaviour and they want the experience to be positive for them and their dog.

Labels like Positive Reinforcement Training, are so helpful when they speed up communication and change behaviour quickly. Equally they are unhelpful when they shut down questioning and hide doubtful practice. Keep questioning, keep seeking, keep learning and enjoy the process - now, that's what I call positive reinforcement!

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