What is positive reinforcement?

There are some misconceptions out there about what positive reinforcement is – some people see it as bribery, others think treats are limited just to tricks, and some think that praise or petting alone mean they’re training with positive reinforcement.

By definition, positive reinforcement is something that is added to your pets environment to increase a particular behaviour. It is a consequence that motivates your pet to do that again. Often the thing that we add is food, because all living things eat and so can be motivated by food, but we can also add a beloved toy, a game of tug, a belly rub or head scratch, or anything else your pet likes. That’s the key, it has to be something your pet likes.

dog chew reinforcementYou can tell whether or not what you’re doing is positively reinforcing to your pet, because if it is they will do that behaviour more often! If you give your dog a pat on the head whenever he sits, and he starts avoiding you when you cue a sit, then being petted is not reinforcing to your dog because the behaviour is decreasing. On the other hand you might offer your dog a treat each time he sits, causing him to sit more often. Now you have positively reinforced sitting!

People mistakenly think that positive reinforcement is the same as bribery, but it is very different. When you’ve been bribed, you can see your reward and are working with the knowledge you are about to get it. In training this would be luring, when you hold a treat or toy in front of your pet to get them to do something. The reward in positive reinforcement is unknown to your pet, but it knows through past training that usually you come up with something good!

The really cool thing is that through training, more and more things can become positively reinforcing to your pet because of great associations they’ve made with them in the past. Sometimes even the opportunity to respond to a certain cue can be motivating to your pet. It is this versatility that makes positive reinforcement so great – you might be empty handed, but that doesn’t have to mean you can’t reward a job well done!

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Is your pet motivated?

Begging Dog

There are a range of factors that influence whether or not your pet will perform a behaviour when you ask, but a big one that is often overlooked is motivation. You’ve asked your pet to do something, now they’re wondering “what’s in it for me?”

Many people hold the belief that our pets, particularly our dogs, should do what we say “to please us”. There are a number of things wrong with this expectation, but in particular is the fact that animals don’t live by what’s right or wrong in the world but rather by what brings them good things and what causes bad things to happen. They repeat behaviours that bring them good outcomes, and avoid behaviours that lead to bad things happening.

Which brings us back to motivation. You’ve asked your dog to come, but he’s having a blast barking at dog on the other side of the fence. You’re empty handed, and you sound mad. What’s in it for him? Not much! He could stay at the fence having a blast, or he could come to you and get in trouble. He has no concept that it will please you if he comes on cue, he is just interested in how it affects his day.

There are a range of ways you can motivate your pet to work with you instead of ignoring you. Try using favourite treats, games, toys, attention, and praise during training. If you can teach him that listening to you leads to all his favourite things happening, then the stakes are in your favour next time you cue a behaviour. The more good history you build, the better the stakes get for you.

Next time your pet seems to blow you off when you ask him to do something, take a minute to think about what you’re offering him in return. Are you asking him to stop doing something he’s enjoying? Then you had better up your game!