If this is the first post you’ve ever read of mine, you should know that I’m a huge supporter and fan of positive reinforcement training. I believe that it’s the best way to communicate with your dog what is expected from them, and have them fully understand and comply.
A lot of my posts deal with positive reinforcement and its relationship to dog psychology. Whether you’re working on basic stuff like sit and down, or you’re working with more complex behavioral issues, the principles and methods remain the same.
I realized the other day that even though I’m a big supporter, I think it’s extremely important to let people make their own decisions based on the good, as well as the bad, aspects of Positive Reinforcement training.
This list is NOT exhaustive, it’s just the things that stood out most to me as I was pondering the positive and negative traits.
OK, let’s start with the Pros of +R (Positive Reinforcement)
1. It allows you to build a great foundation on trust and the desire to work
When you’re working with a dog, you want them to enjoy what they’re doing. By doing that, you’re creating the situation where your dog looks forward to performing behaviors for you, even if it’s simply putting their rear on the floor.
You’re also setting up a training environment that is informative and flows smoothly. Your dog trusts that it’s going to be a positive situation and, again, looks forward to learning with you.
2. You create a thinking dog rather than a “YES” man dog.
With +R, your dog is trying to figure out what is going to get them the best reward. What do they have to do to make mom or dad happy? With Positive Punishment (+P; where you’re adding something to situation to decrease a behavior from happening, like giving a correction with a pinch collar to stop a dog from pulling on a leash), your dog is still figuring out what NOT to do but they’re doing it because they don’t want to get corrected/be uncomfortable.
Yes, both of those work, but if you’re using a piece of training equipment, your dog could become reliant on that piece of equipment, and not on you giving the command.
3. You learn how your dog communicates
You know how at the doctor’s office, they sometimes ask you how you learn best and give you options like read something, hear something, actually do something, etc.? Dogs are the same way.
As trainers, we have methods that work for the majority of dogs, but that’s not to say that that method is good for all dogs. Some dogs will get things right away and some dogs need to figure things out in steps.
Some dogs will perform the same way for milk bone biscuits while others need a tastier treat to lure them into position, or grab their attention in a somewhat distracting situation.
You learn your dog tells. When working on a Stay, some dogs will look at their owners in a certain way and you just KNOW they’re going to break their stay. Sometimes, they might switch their focus to something else, lean towards it an inch and a moment later they’ve broken the stay. Whatever their tells are, you get the opportunity to learn what they are so you can be proactive on helping your dog win, and learn faster.
4. You can help your dog adjust to stressors, and things that cause adverse emotions like fear and anxiety, faster
Because of your ability to learn how your dog communicates, you’re able to listen to their body language and know when they’re getting too stressed.
You might know that your dog is stressed but as long as you keep a distance greater than X feet, your dog won’t go into hysterics and bark like crazy.
Or you might know that you need to redirect your dog’s attention to you once you see that they’re starting to give that stressor some attention, and starting to lean in a bit.
You have continual conversation with your dog and are listening to what they’re telling you, allowing you to act appropriately.
5. +R training has long term effects
Your dog has learned through repetition and positive consequences that when they perform X behavior, it is a massively positive event that gets them awesome rewards, from treats, to love, to life rewards like going for a walk or playing outside.
Positivity works best!
6. +R is backed by scientific research and there are THOUSANDS of resources out there for you to find
Backed by Science.
Studies performed all over the world.
Many, many, many people writing about said experiments performed all over the world.
Stupid amount of resources at your fingertips on the line (a.k.a. the internet. Come on, someone please get that reference!).
There are the Pros of +R training that first popped into my head. Now let’s look at the Cons of +R training.
1. You have to be smarter than your dog
Dog training is consequence driven, and dogs will figure out what they need to do to get that reward. BUT…. dogs are also reward driven so while figuring out what they need to do to get that reward, they’re also figuring out the LEAST amount of work they need to do to get the reward. That means, they can get a little tricky.
I have this problem in my group classes. Often, dogs will start jumping because they want the treats I have. Then we start teaching the dogs an “Off” or “Down” behavior and, after a few times, the dog learns that they jump up and they get a treat to get down. They stay down for a moment, then they jump up again for us to help them down again so they can get a treat.
Then I have to be smarter than the dog when training a behavior that’s not really in the curriculum but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let a dog jump up on meJ
2. Can be a bit confusing
There can be a lot going on when you’re using positive reinforcement. It’s a lot to begin with when you’re training a behavior. You have the dog. You MIGHT have a leash. You have rewards/treats. And THEN you throw in a marker.
A marker, in case you didn’t know, is how we communicate with our dog that they’ve done what we want them to do. Markers can be auditory, or verbal. We have markers for our dogs doing something correct, as well as when they do something wrong.
3. Might not work because dog is using too much of their hind brain
***When a dog is using their hind brain, they’re so focuses on what’s in front of them and stressing them out that they’re not listening or seeing or acknowledging anything else other than what that stressor is.
This is the issue that I’m currently working on with my own dog, Harlow. Someone knocking at the door sets her off and it takes something close to an act of dog for her to leave it alone. Once she sniffs the person, she’s fine but God help you if you want quiet after someone knocks at the door.
She’s not interested in the treat, she’s not anywhere near focused on me like I want her to be. She’s using her hind brain. Now it becomes a matter of desensitizing her and working with everything else in the situation (sounds, sites, mental states, etc.) and there’s a bunch of psychology tied in in addition to the simple acts you want your dog to perform.
4. Not a one-size-fits-all method
+R can work with just about any behavior BUT there are situations that might need a little more speed and precision, such as a dog sport where the dog is in a high drive state like Schutzhund or Mondioring (Extreme precision here). Or, they might be working dogs in high stress situations like Military Working Dogs, and Police K9s’. Regardless of what the dogs are doing, sometimes +R isn’t the chosen training method.
5. Can take a long amount of time if you’re working with a behavioral issue
Let’s face it, +R can help you shape behaviors amazingly and help you get very precise results when used correctly, BUT if you’re using it to work on a psychological issue, it’s going to take a while.
The easiest analogy I can use is a person that is going to a psychologist for PTSD, or another mental disability. It’s not going to be fixed in one or two session. The person has to come to terms with the fact that there’s an issue and do the mental work themselves. No one else can do it for them.
With dogs, it’s kinda the same thing because 1. We don’t speak the same language. We can’t tell them to calm down, they’re over-reacting and being melodramatic. We have to help them ARRIVE at the conclusion that that stressor, whatever it is, isn’t that big of a deal.
Yes, the title of this post gave the impression that I’m all cupcakes and rainbows about Positive Reinforcement. But there’s always two sides to a coin.
I wouldn’t be doing my job is all I ever talked about was how great something is. Any person who tells you there’s NOTHING wrong with X is full of it. Unless X is chocolate or warm jammies on a cold day. Maybe that’s just me.
I hope this post has given you some things to think about. Despite the cons that I mentioned above, I still fully believe in the power us positivity, and all that it can help accomplish.
What do you think? Do you prefer another method of training (Possitive or Negative Reinforcement or Punishment), or find that +R isn’t appropriate in certain situations? I’d love to hear.
As always, show your dog some love today, and Happy Training:)