There is a wide and varied debate in the dog training world over the merits of different forms of training, with the main emphasis being the "best practice" revolving around Positive Reinforcement only training and the subsequent use of food.
It is the intention of this article to outline what the reality is behind the process so that all the facts are on the table for review by those that are in fact interested.
Firstly, we need to understand the terminology as many trainers let alone clients get this totally wrong.
Positive Reinforcement - The giving of something pleasant to assist in the reinforcement of a desired action.
Negative Reinforcement - The removal of something unpleasant to assist in the reinforcement of a desired action. (often represented as Positive Punishment by uneducated trainers)
Positive Punishment - The giving of something unpleasant to assist in the reduction of an undesired action
Negative Punishment - The removal of something pleasant to assist in the reduction of an undesired action
It is only after we consider and understand these states of being that we can appreciate what actually works and how to apply it. Most positive reinforcement only based training will categorically tell you that dogs do not learn from negative experiences. How far is this from the truth.
Dogs in a day to day existence rely on understanding how their environment works. They experiment, they experience outcomes, some are pleasing and some are not. Those that are found to be pleasant are remembered and remembered favourably for future use, while those that are found unpleasing are also remembered, but for the opposite reason. These too are remembered as things to avoid.
Consider this simple scene. I had a dog in the past that was partial to sweet things, he found a bee hive in the park and experimented with it. The first time he was lucky and didn't get stung and actually got some honey. The second time he was not so lucky and received multiple stings. To the day he died I could not walk him near the hive on or off leash due to the impact of the experience. This was a clear outcome. Bad experiences for whatever reason are in fact remembered by a dog and can be used as part of training. They are every bit as important as the positive ones.
Positive only dog trainers believe that by not placing a dog in a situation where it can show a bad response to something is the best way to eliminate unwanted behaviour. Sadly this does not work. Ignoring potential problems or triggers for bad behaviour is irresponsible advice. Problems that trigger unwanted behaviour need to be identified and addressed, and as early as possible.
Dogs in all reality learn much more effectively when there is a clear balance between the positive and negative experiences they receive as part of the training process. This is not to say that Positive Reinforcement is not important, In fact I would agree with the general dog training community in saying that it is the most important tool we have at our disposal, but even the reason behind it is misunderstood by the greater dog training community.
In the wild dogs DO NOT receive any positive reinforcement for desired behaviour. The main reward for any positive behaviour is staying alive and in the pack structure. There is no one to pat them. there is no one to give them food treats. Dogs just realise that they did what they did and as a result they are alive, it is that simple. Where we have the advantage as trainers is that we can work with nature in our favour and over and above having the dog feel that it is alive and happy due to its behaviour, we can actually introduce greater motivators such as positive reinforcement to further convince the dog. Simple isn't it, but why do many trainers not get this.
Where the Positive Only brigade get it wrong is once again through inadequate selection of the reward and go straight to food. Food Training is the basis of the lazy trainer, given its easy delivery. It is far easier to give the dog a treat than to actually reward the dog by means of direct interaction. Please read my other post on Motivation Principles to see what I am talking about.
The problem with food is all in its delivery. Even those that swear by this method of training, will tell you that the quality of treat is critical, and that daily feeding routines can be disrupted due to training with food treats, In fact many will use the training process as the main food delivery method for your dog. Stop and think about that for a minute. How can a dog receive a balanced diet if it is being fed even partially with treats that are often processed food.
Another aspect is that many dog training centres using this method will tell you not to feed your dog the day before training and use food to get it to do things for you and as a result they receive food. Think about this clearly, if we make the dog hungry and then when it does something we give it a small piece of food, thus reducing the hunger, what are we doing?
Read back at the headings at the top, and you will realise that what is presented as Positive Reinforcement training is actually Negative Reinforcement based on mild starvation in that the Unpleasant Experience being Hungry is partially removed with the carrying out of a desired action. I have copied an extract below from a Positive Only dog training centre as part of their advice to clients. Have a good read and then look down at the type of food suggested and how much is processed garbage.
FEEDING DOGS BEFORE CLASS
Dog training classes can be very distracting places for dogs so it is imperative that you do not feed your dog his/her normal meal dog prior to class. This way your dog will be hungry and more inclined to pay attention to you. If you feel it necessary to give your dog some food prior to classes do not give him/her more than HALF their usual meal.
TREATS FOR CLASS
Please bring AMPLE treats cut up into very small portions - no larger than the size of your little fingernail (half that for smaller breeds). You will need at least 100-200 tiny pieces of food.
Human food treats work best, below are some suggestions:
This is animal cruelty to the extreme. In fact what the Positive Only brigade won’t tell you is that if you have a dog that isn't food oriented, they suggest that you withhold food making the dog hungry in order to make it work with food through hunger.
What ever happened to a simple pat and play, with what should be your best friend.
Having said that, I do use food in my training, but not in the same way. My positive reinforcement is based on direct interaction with my dog, which is proportional to his performance, and when we get home the quality of food I offer him is also based on how he performed. The food I give him is always high quality but his extra treats such as a bloody meaty bone is reserved as an over and above reward, which he appreciates and subsequently identifies with the way he worked that day.
In conclusion Positive Reinforcement is a critical part of dog training but should be considered carefully in terms of how it is implemented, and must be adopted as part of a balanced approach using the dog's ability to draw experience from pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
I will add another post shortly on Punishment and what this means in training,