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The Power of Positive

Anna Bradley explores the world of positive reinforcement, how it affects dogs’ brains, and how to choose the different types of rewards we use

© Can Stock Photo/zerbor


© Can Stock Photo/Lopolo

Individual dogs will work for different rewards, and rewards may increase or decrease in value depending on a variety of factors

n essence, as we all know, positive reinforcement refers to the addition of something to a dog’s world which the dog finds super amazing, enjoyable and wonderful which in turn makes a specific behavior more likely to be repeated. Of course, dogs being the incredibly clever beings that they are (and we being mere humans), are quick to learn that some behaviors we deem inappropriate can be positively reinforced too – think of the attention people often give to dogs who leap up at them – so the trick is to accurately mark the behaviors we want.

It’s Not All Fluffiness

People often say things along the lines of positive reinforcement methods being ‘soft,’ ‘fluffy,’ or ‘not hard enough.’ I could go on. This used to irritate me before I realized that such thoughts are simply born from a lack of understanding. Later in the article I will explore the alternatives to positive reinforcement and share a case study based on one of them, something I have never forgotten. Put simply, when you implement positive reinforcement, dogs experience a big dopamine release in their brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is released when good things happen. It helps the dog feel good, and helps her focus, learn better and remember what you are teaching her. There are those who still think that training with food or toys means simply bribing the dog to accomplish a task, when in fact you are creating an incredibly enjoyable and enriching learning experience.

Choosing Rewards

I always advise clients to look first at the dog they have. Is she a gundog, terrier, hound, working breed, etc.? What natural inbuilt instincts does she have? Once established, we start by working with those. I see a lot 26

BARKS from the Guild/July 2018

© Can Stock Photo/damedeeso

Dopamine (see inset) helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and is released when a dog feels good, improving focus, learning and motivation in training

of clients who say their dogs are “not motivated by anything” and, consequently, they have been locked into a cycle of physical corrections. I love these clients because they are a challenge and I know that there is always something, somewhere that we can use to motivate their dogs and begin their journey on the positive pathway. Some are as simple as increasing rewards to a higher value, smellier type of food reward, but in low volume in combination with reducing environmental distraction. With others, I might preference test a dog with a variety of scents and then use an impregnated swab stick as a reward. In my experience, this works well for gundog breeds. Terriers, border collies, and hounds often work well for natural fur lures, while the so-called bully breeds will often work well for flirt poles. Of course, having said all that, there is great variation within different breed types and, as trainers, we often have to be quite inventive. Also, we need to be aware of overarousal. If this happens, calm periods can be promoted just as positively as the initial behavior. The flipside of overarousal is satiation, when a dog becomes bored with the same reward, or the reward is no longer appealing for some reason (e.g. the dog is tired, or no longer hungry) so provide variety. (See also The Hierarchy of Rewards, BARKS from the Guild, May 2018.)

Using +R

We can use positive reinforcement in a variety of ways based upon our dog’s behavior. Here are just a few examples.

Set It up and Mark It

As I mentioned above, dogs can use positive reinforcement to their own advantage, so timing is everything. You might use your desired reward (e.g. food, toy, praise etc.) to model or lure your dog into the behavior you want. The moment you achieve the response you desire, mark it

BARKS from the Guild July 2018  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...

BARKS from the Guild July 2018  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...