The Science Behind Positive Dog Training
How to correct a dog using a rewards-based dog training system
There's a lot of information out there these days about the best way to train a dog. At Dog Savvy Los Angeles, we firmly believe in choice and rewards-based dog training--otherwise known as positive reinforcement dog training--as being the fastest, most effective way to train a dog.
So how do you correct your dog effectively when they are behaving in an undesirable way using positive, force-free methods? In order to answer this question, you must first have an understanding of the training principles used in modern dog training.
WHAT IS POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT DOG TRAINING?
The term positive reinforcement refers to one of the four training principles that comprise animal learning theory, of which modern, force-free dog trainers mainly apply two when training dogs:
Positive reinforcement means adding a reinforcer to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again. A reinforcer can be anything your dog likes such as food rewards or toys, and it can also be given in the form of permission to do something your dog enjoys.
Negative punishment means taking a reinforcer away to decrease the likelihood of a behavior happening again. This can mean taking a food reward or toy away or withholding permission from your dog to do something.
Positive reinforcement and negative punishment act as consequences during training and are the driving principles behind all of the exercises you will encounter in modern dog training.
These methods are far superior to any other method because, unlike the use of verbal or physical corrections, they set up a clear line of communication between you and your dog. By applying consequences that your dog can understand and learn from, you pave the way for helping your dog to make better choices about how to behave in the future.
DOGS LEARN VIA ASSOCIATION & CONSEQUENCES
Dogs learn mainly via association and from the consequence of their actions. For instance, when a human picks up a leash, a dog generally acts very excitedly. They have learned to associate the leash with going for a walk.
On the other hand, dogs who counter-surf have learned that if they make an effort to check counters, they will often be rewarded with a tasty treat or two. Since the outcome of jumping up to check the counter resulted in a pleasant consequence, the behavior of jumping up on counters gets reinforced and is likely to continue.
For many counter-surfing dogs, the punishment they may receive for the behavior does not outweigh the positive consequence of finding a tasty morsel on the counter--especially if a dog is regularly denied "people food"--so the behavior may become stronger and stronger despite repetitive reprisals from dog parents.
WHY VERBAL & PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT DOESN'T WORK
Since dogs are non-verbal creatures who are living in the moment, any form of corporal or verbal punishment is meaningless to them, particularly if they have already received reinforcement for their behavior (as is the case for counter-surfers who get reinforced by the discovery of food on the counter).
In fact, the use of verbal or corporal punishment often does more harm than good and can wear down your relationship with your dog in the following ways:
Confusion for people - You may get more and more frustrated with your dog, thinking your dog knows they've done something "wrong," when really you've been communicating ineffectively with your dog about how you feel about their behavior.
Confusion for dogs - A dog is just doing what its natural impulses dictate until you teach them otherwise. If you regularly punish your dog with verbal or corporal punishment, all that serves to establish with your dog is that you cannot always be trusted to treat it fairly and that it can get away with certain behaviors when you are not looking or not within arm's reach.
Frustration about a dog's behavior is inevitable at some point. Most people struggle in one way or another with training their dog, so knowing how to help a dog distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior can be a real game-changer. Once you master how to use consequences to communicate with your dog, training them gets easier and easier!
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Preventing or withholding reinforcement from your dog
Negative punishment is a scientific term for taking reinforcement for a behavior away. The term punishment in this context is a little misleading and does not involve any form of physical or verbal corrections such as corporal punishment (hitting a dog) or yelling. It simply means that any and all reinforcement is prevented from happening or taken away as a consequence of a dog's behavior, in order to diminish the likelihood of the behavior happening again.
Negative punishment can take two forms:
Preventing a dog from getting reinforcement (i.e., making sure all countertops are cleared of food).
Providing a negative consequence for an unwanted behavior (i.e., putting your dog in a timeout for jumping on the counter). In layman's terms, applying a negative consequence to a behavior is called a timeout.
USING TIMEOUTS EFFECTIVELY: LET THE CONSEQUENCE TEACH YOUR DOG
A timeout acts as a negative consequence for a behavior and is one of the best ways to let your dog know you don't appreciate something they did. If the outcome of a specific behavior always results in an instructive negative consequence for your dog, you will notice that behavior start to die down and go away.
In the case of the counter-surfer, you need to ensure that your dog no longer receives reinforcement for the behavior while you actively provide your dog with a negative consequence for the behavior at the same time. This means keeping counters clear of food so that your counter doesn't end up rewarding your dog when you are not looking. This also means that you will swiftly put your dog in a timeout if you catch them jumping on a counter.
FOR OPTIMAL RESULTS, VARY THE KINDS OF TIMEOUTS YOUR DOG RECEIVES
Understanding the impact of a timeout and how to execute one properly is crucial to your success in dog training. It's also important to understand the varied ways you can give your dog a timeout so that they don't start to associate any particular place or behavior with a timeout. For instance, if you want to create positive associations with your dog's crate, you don't want to always put your dog in their crate as a form of negative punishment or they may start to dislike their crate.
Timeouts can take many forms and include:
Withdrawing your attention from your dog. This can be done progressively by:
turning your head to the side and withdrawing eye contact;
turning your back to your dog;
walking away/leaving the room.
Putting your dog on a designated timeout tether, behind a gate, or in a crate until they settle down.
Grabbing your dog's collar for 10-15 seconds to prevent free movement, and then releasing them to see if they make a different choice.
Putting your dog on a leash and asking them for a sit or a down.
Familiarizing yourself with the many ways you can provide a negative consequence for your dog's behavior will help you greatly in finding ways to benignly correct your dog in a variety of circumstances and in a way that your dog can understand.
BREVITY, SWIFT RESPONSE, AND CONSISTENCY ARE KEY ASPECTS OF AN EFFECTIVE TIMEOUT
Something to keep in mind is that timeouts are only effective when:
they are brief;
when you act swiftly;
when you are consistent about why your dog is given a timeout.
It's through repetition and consistency that a dog starts to connect the dots and realize that a specific behavior will land them in a timeout, and then decide not to keep doing it.
A TIMEOUT SHOULD ONLY LAST AS LONG AS IT TAKES FOR YOUR DOG TO CALM DOWN OR CHOOSE ANOTHER BEHAVIOR
Since dogs are living in the moment, any consequence that lasts longer than it takes for your dog to calm down and/or return their attention back to you fails to be instructive.
Why? Because if a timeout lasts too long, your dog will no longer understand why it happened and won't make the connection between the behavior that resulted in a timeout in the first place.
That means that if you put your dog on a tether or behind a gate as a negative consequence, you should only keep them there for the time it takes for them to settle into a down, and then let them out for another chance to behave more appropriately.
If you choose to put your dog on a leash or grab their collar, it should only last as long as it takes for your dog to calm down and return their attention back to you, perhaps choosing to sit in the process, and then releasing them for a chance to choose a more appropriate behavior.
GIVE YOUR DOG TIME TO CONNECT THE DOTS
Something to keep in mind is that it generally takes anywhere from 3-5 consistent timeouts for you to see a reduction in an unwanted behavior in your dog.
It is only by repetition that your dog understands what behaviors land them in a timeout and should, therefore, avoid acting out again in the future.
REWARD YOUR DOG FOR MAKING A BETTER CHOICE
What you really want to see from your dog after a timeout is that they decide to choose another, more acceptable behavior instead of the unwanted one.
When this happens, it's a good idea to let your dog know that the alternate behavior they have chosen is a really great idea by rewarding them with a treat, their favorite toy, or even playtime with you!
Just like humans, dogs like being recognized for a job well done! Rewards reinforce your dog for making good choices and really are the best way to communicate with your dog that you appreciate their good behavior.
This is real communication that your dog can fully take in and understand and part of the process of helping them learn how to negotiate living in a human world.
Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner and lead trainer at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, a dog training company that specializes in positive training and solving problematic behaviors like dog separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and aggression. She is certified as Knowledge Assessed by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and is available for online dog training sessions via Skype.