The Power of Positive Dog Training

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You may notice a similarity between the title of this article and the title of the book by Norman Vincent Peale. This is intentional. Peale asserts in his book that you can improve your life by having a positive attitude. While this book is not very scientific, the power of positive dog training has been proven scientifically.

Before we get into all that scientific stuff, here’s a bit of background on my history with positive reinforcement dog training. I have worked with 4-H for nearly a decade, helping them to train their dogs. In addition, I have trained my own dogs with varying degrees of positive reinforcement and correction based training techniques. Here are my very non-scientific observations. I’ll say that again, non-scientific. Just my observations.

Dogs trained with ANY training method can be successful. I believe that, unless you are unusually cruel, a dog’s number one concern is to know where their place in life is. What are they supposed to do? What do you expect of them? If you are consistent in your training, then any training method can work. Remember that all-important word: CONSISTENCY.

In general, when you reward your dog for desired behaviors as opposed to correcting a dog when they aren’t doing what you want, you will get:

Quicker Learning

I have been working with my dog for quite a while. Our training sessions typically last no more than 5 minutes. This is because of how fast it is for my dog to learn a new behavior. Just yesterday, I was working with three dogs. I taught one to go in circles around my body. The next one I taught to go around a stool. The third one I taught to stand on three legs while holding up one paw. How long did each behavior take to learn? Well, the dogs are at different stages in their experience with clicker based training so the first took the longest. But standing on three legs? That took about two minutes from start to finish.

A Dog that Wants to Learn

A dog that realizes that they are going to get rewards for various behavior is more likely to try and figure out what behavior is going to get them that reward. In my house, training time is a time of joy. When the clicker and treats come out, the dogs start bouncing around. “Pick me!” they all seem to say. When we are training, their brains are fully engaged in trying to figure out what behavior I’m looking for. You can watch them trying to figure it out and feeling joy when they do.

More enthusiasm

I have now personally trained five dogs over the years. I’ve worked with many many more 4-H youth and their dogs. But only five of my own dogs. I started with a balanced approach, because that is what was taught at the training school I went to. The worked OK but there were various levels of frustration for myself and the dogs. We both learned but the dogs were very careful not to make mistakes. My current oldest dog, Skye, did not respond well to any of the corrections and actually became afraid to make mistakes. Our training appeared to be at a standstill. I thought it was me, or her, or the instructor or something else.

Then along came D’Argo, my youngest dog. And, luckily for me, someone introduced me to the concept of clicker training, operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. I was determined to have a happy, well trained dog. Instead what I found was that I ended up with a wonderful friend that wanted nothing more than do do all the things I asked of him. And Skye? Well, she’ll never be great at agility. But when the clicker comes out, she is as enthusiastic as D’Argo.

More reliable repeat behaviors

One of the things that I found frustrating about both correction based training and balanced training (some positive, some corrections) was the difficulty I had ensuring that the dog was able to generalize and repeat behaviors. I believe the reason I had a hard time is because it was harder to indicate exactly when the desired behavior was occurring.

A marker word such as “yes” or the use of a clicker, gives the dog a clear indication of what you want. But tugging on a collar or removing of a reward does not. You are trying to tell them what you didn’t like but there could be one of a million things that you are indicating. You might be telling them not to sniff by pulling their nose off the ground and putting your foot in front of their nose. But is that what they think you are saying? How do you know. With a marker and a treat you are in better control of what is going on.

Everyone is happier all around

Think about this. This is important. Do you like feeling angry? Do you like being frustrated? Do you like thinking that your best friend is just ignoring you or being stubborn? You will probably answer no to all these questions. Who would like that? If you observe corrections in dog training, you will find that trainers tend to feel this way quite often.

What if you could be happy more often? What if you could be certain that your dog understood you? What if you had a clear way of communicating what you wanted to your dog and seeing that your dog understood you? When you look at reward based trainers, especially those that use some sort of marker to indicate desired behavior, you will find that they are not as frustrated with their dogs. There is no reason to be. The dog isn’t ignoring you, the dog isn’t stubborn. You now have a language you both speak. That of the marker and reward.

Now a bit of the science

This is really really condensed. There were many people that contributed to the science of operant conditioning.

B.F. Skinner is considered one of the pioneers of behaviorism and positive reinforcement in animal training. He was a psychologist at Harvard University in the first half of the twentieth century. He used a method called “operant conditioning” (mentioned above) to train behaviors in rats and pigeons. He tried many things including electric shocks, lights, tones, food, etc to see what response the animals would give. Through his experiments, he learned that by marking a desired behavior and administering a reward, the animal learned much faster and was more likely to repeat behaviors.

Move forward in time. Bob Bailey and his wife Marian along with Keller Breland started teaching animal training classes in the 40s based on the techniques pioneered by B.F. Skinner. They focused on using chickens to teach the animal trainers about operant conditioning. If you can train a chicken, you can train anything!

Then along comes Karen Pryor. She was a marine mammal trainer and used a whistle to communicate with dolphins. She followed along with the methodologies pioneered by B.F. Skinner, Bob and Marion Baley and Keller Breland along with others. She was very successful. The turning point to dog training was in the 1990s, when she wrote her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” which took all the concepts from chicken, rat, pigeon and dolphin training and focused on how these could work for dogs.

And all this is the basis for modern concepts in operant conditioning and positive reinforcement dog training.

Do I have references? Of course. But I must admit that I took the easy way out here. While I have read many articles and books on this subject, I did not read them just prior to writing this post. So I refreshed my memory by looking on the Internet. Which, luckily, has some great, valid references!

For B.F Skinner, I went to Wikipedia. You will see a ton of great references listed here.

For Bob Bailey, his stuff is a bit harder to find. So I basically perused his website.

For Karen Pryor, I have her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. In addition, you can check out the excellent Karen Prior Training Academy

I hope this has given you some insight into positive reinforcement in dog training, why it is useful and how it can improve communications with your canine partner.





One thought on “The Power of Positive Dog Training

  1. Great to read this! I’m completely convinced by positive training. My dog is so eager to learn. Thanks for the post- interesting to read the science behind it all 🙂

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