Positive & Negative Reinforcement
Positive and negative reinforcement. What does it mean? As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I often get ideas for articles from readers. I recently received an email asking me to explain what positive and negative reinforcement dog training is all about. This subject can get either detailed and complicated or approached from a more simplified explanation. Let’s take a look with a simplified explanation.
For decades, dog training has been relying on research from behaviorists such as Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner. Both men did a great amount of research in what is often referred to as classic or operant conditioning. Simplified, the results of their research developed the theory that if the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated. If the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. Those two sentences summarize all modern dog training.
It sounds simple, however, let’s look at examples. First let’s look at negative reinforcement. Good examples would be either the ear or toe pinch in force fetch training. We apply discomfort to the dog and then reward by removing the discomfort when they take the dummy. Another example would be applying e-collar stimulation, giving the whoa command and then removing the stimulation when the dog stops and stands still. We, the trainer, put pressure on but we immediately remove the pressure when the dog responds positively. The dog is learning that by doing a certain action, he can remove the pressure.
Now, let’s look for problems with negative reinforcement. The worse example of this was a horrible display of e-collar misuse. Many years ago, I was bird hunting with a friend. When we got our of the truck, he proudly showed me a new e-collar he had just purchased from a big box store. He said he had been having trouble with recall so he stopped at the big box store and spoke with a salesman about the issue. The salesman sold him an e-collar. The salesman told him as soon as he starts calling his dog, stimulate and don’ take your finger off the button until the dog comes. As soon as my friend had a recall problem, my friend stimulated. When the dog failed to recall, my friend turned up the juice. He turned it up so high that the dog was yelping and running in every direction except back to his owner. The dog had never been introduced to the e-collar and had no idea why he was getting all this pain. The dog was confused and scared. Always introduce your dog to an e-collar before using it in the field. A very simple example would be to, in the yard, give your dog very slight stimulation and recall and then give the dog a treat. The dog now understands the meaning of stimulation.
Now let’s discuss positive reinforcement. Actually, in the above sentence, my example of introducing the collar is positive reinforcement. Again, if the consequences (a treat or praise) for the dog are positive, the probability of the action being repeated are good. It’s positive reinforcement. In our household, we usually begin with positive reinforcement for most of our training. An example would be teaching the “whoa” command. We walk the dog, on a lead, and suddenly give the “whoa” command while simultaneously giving a slight tug on the lead. When the dog stands still, we immediately reward with a treat.
Many of the modern dog trainers feel that positive reinforcement is a much more productive method of training. I’m not going to get into that argument in this article. The theme of my recent book, 21st Century Pointing Dog Training, is to love and understand your dog. If you love and understand your dog, you and your dog will become a finely-tuned bird hunting machine. The hard copy first printing is sold out. It is available as a digital download. Go to www.birddogsafield.com and click on the ‘store” button.
Susan, my wife, and I look forward to meeting you in the field some day.
Copyright 2023 Paul Fuller