The Power of Positive Reinforcement

When I first starting training dogs, over 16 years ago, dog training consisted mostly of compulsion: a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will i.e. force. Back “in the day” we taught our dogs to vehemently wait for a command so that they could comply.

The tools of the trade were choke chains, prong collars, throw chains and shake cans. I understudied at a dog training establishment in Wisconsin for over a year while I learned how to train; most puppies and adult dogs were fitted with prong collars. Then I moved to Colorado and began training with an organization that trained Service Dogs for adults and children with physical disabilities, and I was introduced to positive reinforcement and clicker training.

What a novel idea, to motivate an animal to work? Our physically disabled clients, after all, couldn’t force their four legged companions to comply to their every command; the dog had to “WANT” to comply to fulfill the job requirement and continually work throughout the day.

I had all the same worries that my clients have: “Will I always have to have a treat?” “Is my dog really learning?” “Will he beg?” “Will he be distracted by food?” The answers I quickly learned were NO, YES, NO and NO. I had to switch gears in my mind.

I automatically became a fan of Karen Pryor and her breakthrough work with marine mammals and the inception of the clicker. In fact, you can’t grab a Dolphin and force it into the air, it has to WANT to perform. Instead of simply forcing a dog to comply, I had to learn how he thought, how to motivate him and then I had to learn how to out think him.

And, if I was having problems with my training, I usually had to figure out what I was doing wrong and why he was training me. Timing was everything. If my timing was off, I was reinforcing the wrong behaviors. Although in many ways, in the beginning, this was more difficult for ME, it was groundbreaking for the dog.

Instead of seeing dogs wincing when they expected a correction or nervous about making a wrong move, these dogs were happy, wagging, and learning to THINK, they loved training and looked forward to all training sessions.

I had, what I believe Oprah calls an “ah ha” moment. You can only force an animal that is weaker than you, either physically or by will. Compulsion creates a nervous animal that never knows when it is “right”. We wait for bad behavior to rear its ugly head and then nip it in the bud with force and often aggression, the dog is terrified of making a mistake or thinking, he is simply existing for the arrival of the next command, or he is choosing bad behavior for the interaction it provides.

Positive reinforcement teaches a dog to THINK, it is ok to make mistakes because there are no corrections, only withholding the reinforcement for improper choices. We are telling the dogs what they are doing “RIGHT” not waiting for him to make mistakes. We can alleviate many behavior problems.

We reward the good behaviors so that the dog will continually show us those things that we like, and often we are ignoring bad behaviors and by doing so and not interacting with the dog or reinforcing these mistakes, they inevitably go away.

Because I was enlightened and learned the principles of positive reinforcement it has allowed me to become successful not only at training dogs, but also at training exotic animals like large cats, domestic cats, and humans; just to name a few.

Forcing a Cheetah to comply is not only unsafe it is unlikely to be productive, but by finding the correct reinforcer for each individual (everyone and everything has many reinforcers of different values) the sky is the limit.

I realized this is how I like to be treated and that positive reinforcement works successfully and ingeniously on everyone and everything in my life. If I want someone to continue a certain behavior, I praise them, thank them, acknowledge their work, and perhaps take them to lunch or pay them.

This system of incentive ensures that if I ever need them again, they will mostly likely be at my disposal. However, if I force them, they will resist and avoid me. If I punish them, they may comply but they will be resentful. And, if I ignore what they have done for me, they will never do a favor for me again.

I want to work for an employer that believes in positive reinforcement. I want someone to encourage me to learn, who patiently shows me what to do, and when I make mistakes (which are inevitable with all of us) may gently point them out, but ultimately focuses on my successes.

This feeling of accomplishment then spills over into all of my work projects and makes me feel I can take on new ventures without fear. If however I work for a boss that is not interested in teaching me, yells at me when I make mistakes, or forces me to do things; I am going to be despondent, will not be comfortable taking on new challenges, and will probably seek employment elsewhere. Be a good “boss” for your dog! Encourage learning, reward good behaviors, and teach him what you want!

I have found that the only drawback is being a professional animal trainer and having a smart boyfriend is that he is aware, or thinks he is aware, whenever I praise him that ultimately I am training him.

Once I said, “Hey honey, thanks for making the bed. I really appreciate that”, and I got “Don’t use your dog training on me” in return, ha ha! Luckily, most of the time I scoot by unnoticed and he doesn’t realize I am using psychology to get the things that make me happy.

So my advice is: GO WILD throw caution to the wind; reward your dog, your

Teach your dog to think and be happy

cat, your family and friends for doing things that you like, ignore comments and behaviors you don’t like, and teach them what your expectations are and you will find the people and animals in your life scrambling to make you happy, because, indeed it is making them happy!






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One Comment

  1. sue glazer says:

    hi minette, what a wonderful article and thanks for including bleu in there, he loves nex and snitch and so does hal….sue


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