Talking Terms

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Positive reinforcement training. You hear it all the time. You know it’s a good thing. But what exactly is it?? Unfortunately it has become a marketing buzz word. This term is thrown around quite freely—and often quite inaccurately. You need to be in the know before you sign up with someone who claims to use positive reinforcement training. So let’s talk terms and get you caught up on the four quadrants of operant conditioning.

Here’s a short recap of the scientific terms you need to know:

Positive sounds, well positive, right? Happy, good!! Not necessarily! In scientific terms of operant conditioning, positive simply means something is ADDED.
There is positive reinforcement. After a behavior occurs, reinforcement (something the dog enjoys like food or play) is added. The dog sits, he gets a cookie. The dog comes, he plays tug. Reinforcing behaviors with something the dog enjoys increases the likelihood they will occur again. The dog WANTS to repeat the behavior on the chance of earning a treat or toy. This is what is meant by those of us who truly use positive reinforcement in training.

But positive doesn’t always mean good. Remember, positive means “adding” Another quad is positive punishment. After a behavior occurs, punishment (something the dog dislikes) is added. The dog barks, he gets squirt with water. The dog doesn’t come when called, he gets shocked with an electronic collar. Punishing behaviors with things the dog dislikes serves to decrease the behavior will occur again. The dog doesn’t want to repeat the behavior in order to avoid the unpleasant punishment. The side effects of punishment can be great and cause irreversible damage.

Now let’s get into the negatives. Negative reinforcement. It almost sounds contradictory doesn’t it? Remember in scientific terms of operant conditioning negative means to take something away. In this case, it is taking away something unpleasant that was put onto the dog. An example is choking the dog until he stops what is seen by the human as bad behavior. When the dog stops the behavior the choking is released—reinforcing him with something he likes—the absence of pain or normal breathing , for acting what we consider correctly. A human example we are all familiar with is the seat-belt. The annoying “ding ding ding ding” continues until you perform the proper behavior of buckling up. The last quad is negative punishment . Remember, negative means take away. Most “positive trainers” use some negative punishment as well. Here the dog is being punished by removing something the dog likes. An example is you are playing tug with the dog and his teeth hit your skin so you stop the game. You have just used negative punishment. You took away what the dog liked (play) thus punishing him for the behavior you did not like.

Bottom line, positive trainers primarily use positive reinforcement—rewarding the dog with something she likes. A good trainer always sets the dog up to succeed so this is the primary tool . But we do use punishment sometimes—in the form of taking away something the dog likes. Remember positive isn’t equivalent to permissive! But Never, ever do positive trainers add discomfort or pain to get the dog to comply.

Now you know! It is always wise to ask many questions and if possible audit (watch without your dog) a training class before you enroll.

Happy training!

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