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.
You 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!